The clang of a golfball striking the flagstick will never replace a golf ball rattling around the bottom of the cup. It’s an age old sound that rings through every golfers soul when a ball tumbles over the edge of the earth and into the cup. It’s the sound of success and satisfaction, but I am here to tell you that I’ve decided to eschew that wonderful sound for the satisfaction of making more putts.
I’m leaving the flagstick in.
It’s been a long strange journey to this point. First, in 2019 the rules of golf changed to make it an option to keep the flag in the cup while putting. Long gone were the days of tending the flagstick for a playing partner. Golfers could hit long putts without the assistance of a playing partner, in theory speeding up play. But this new rule also meant that a golfers could play an entire round without ever taking the flagstick out. That tactic was seen as insane, only adopted by the likes of Bryson DeChambeau, back when he wasn’t eating 4,000 calories a day. Dave Pelz, a NASA physicist turned short game guru said that The Science Proves You Should Leave the Flagstick In.
Purist scoffed at the idea; they wanted to grind over a 5 foot par putt with a naked cup - it’s how it’s always been, and it’s how it always should be. This schism in the game created consternation on the putting green. Strangers doing the delicate dance of figuring out a playing partner’s flagstick preferences, thus causing play to sometimes slow down rather than speed up.
In 2019, I wasn’t sure of my own flagstick preferences. I knew I liked lag putting to a flagstick. Having something to putt towards helped my depth perception, but I usually would pull the flagstick once my golfball was inside 20 feet and I felt like my odds of making it were a little higher. This seemed to be the most universal choice for most golfers: lag putt with the flag in. Then pull it from makable distances.
Golfers didn’t have as much time as they would have liked to make their own decision regarding the flagstick, though. In 2020, putting changed again. A pandemic made it so golfers could never touch the flagstick. It had to remain in the cup. Not only did the flagstick have to stay in the cup, but the golfball couldn’t drop to the bottom of the cup either. Swimming noodles lined the bottom of the cup in order to keep the ball as close to the surface as possible. Other courses used other contraptions to make putting was a contactless activity. All too often, these contraptions caused balls to hop out of the cup. Lip outs were more prevalent, as the ball would spin around the edge and bounce off the styrofoam noodle or metal contraption created to lift the ball out of the cup like an elevator. Golfers would stare at each other after a putt was rejected and decide what the ball’s destiny would have been if a pandemic wasn’t spinning around them.
Over the last few months, golf has returned to normal; golfers can remove flagsticks again and the excuse of blaming the flagstick for bad putting has been put to bed. However, I don’t think I’m going back to the old way of putting. I have found over the last year while being forced to putt with the flagstick in, I have putted better. At least, I think I’m putting better, and that’s all it takes to feel more confident as a putter. While Dave Pelz can throw all sorts of facts and figures my way, I just have anecdotal evidence that my putting is better when I have that flagstick in the cup. For me, it frames the cup nicely. I have more to aim at. I can aim between the edge of the cup and the flagstick. I can even aim right at the flagstick if I think a putt is straight. The empty void of a cup without a stick jutting out is less inviting these days.
I have never been a great putter, but this past year I think I have improved more than I do in a typical year. I am more steady inside 8 feet. That doesn’t mean I’m making a ton of putts, as my expectations have also shifted, the percentage of putts pros make drop from various distances should be memorized by every golfer (pros make 50% of their 7.5 foot putts….). But when I look back at rounds where I’m grinding, I’m making more putts.
Now, all this could come crashing down in the next couple months because putting is a fickle activity that has so many variables. However, leaving the flagstick in has left me craving that newfound sweet sound of my golf ball clanging against the flagstick and seeing the ball wedged between the wall of the cup and the stick.