Technically, this rules change governs any time a ball is played from the putting green and strikes an unattended flagstick in the hole. There are occasions, for example, when a player has to chip from the putting green. But, most often, players are putting from the putting green, and the title “Ball Played from the Putting Green Strikes Unattended Flagstick in the Hole” is just a bit wordy. 🙂

Prior to 2019, a player who played shot played from the putting green that struck the unattended flagstick in the hole incurred a two-stroke penalty. Even a ball that just barely trickled over the front of the hole was deemed to have been in breach as the ball hits the flagstick inside the hole.

In 2019, that penalty is no more. Players may tap the ball in the hole with the flagstick in, or hit a 60-foot putt without fear of being penalized for trying to keep up their pace of play. Whether the ball smashes into the flagstick or just trickles over the edge, it’s not a penalty.

In other words, golf could now be played without ever taking the flagstick out of the hole.

Pace of Play Improvements?

The USGA and R&A say that the rules change is primarily to improve the pace of play. They cite the times when a player chips close and wishes to tap in to get out of the way, or the times when a player is ready to putt from 50+ feet and nobody is available to tend or remove the flagstick.

The USGA and R&A say that:

Allowing a player to putt with the flagstick in the hole without fear of penalty should generally help speed up play:

  • For example, if a putt is long enough that the player cannot easily see the hole unless the flagstick is left in, the player currently needs to wait for another person to attend the flagstick even if it is the player’s turn to play or (in stroke play) if the player is ready to play and it would save time to go ahead and do so.
  • This change could also speed up play of some short tap-ins as the player could simply putt the ball into the hole without first removing and then replacing the flagstick.

When the players do not have caddies, the current Rule can result in considerable delay, such as:

  • When the opponent (or the other player in stroke play) is raking a greenside bunker and will be delayed for a minute or two before coming on to the green.
  • When other players in stroke play are delayed in coming on to the green for other reasons, such as a ball search, indecision about what club to use or shot to play, etc.

When all players in the group have long putts and so will need to walk back and forth to the hole to attend the flagstick for one another (which sometimes produces uncertainty about who will or should attend for someone else).

In match play, a player without a caddie would now be able to choose to putt with the unattended flagstick in the hole rather than ask the opponent to attend the flagstick, reducing the potential for dispute that can arise when the opponent attends for the player (such as when the opponent fails to remove the flagstick and the ball hits it).

However, some remain dubious of the pace of play improvements from this rule.

Many will cite the infrequency of someone who is ready and wants to putt without someone else nearby to attend or remove the flagstick. Others will point out that every time someone who feels having the flagstick in offers an advantage (see below), they will put back an already removed flagstick. For example, a player facing a 20-foot uphill putt takes the flagstick out, believing that he either doesn’t need any advantage or that leaving the flagstick in will be a disadvantage. A player putting after him has a slick, 18-foot downhill putt, and wishes to put the flagstick back in the hole, slowing down play.

An Advantage or Not?

There has been a long-standing debate about whether or not there is an advantage in removing the flagstick from the hole when chipping or putting from off the green.

This rules change will push the debate onto the putting green itself, as players will no doubt debate whether putting with the flagstick in or out yields the biggest advantage – or any advantage at all.

The USGA and R&A have stated that on balance it is expected that there should be no advantage in being able to putt with the unattended flagstick in the hole:

  • In some cases the ball may strike the flagstick and bounce out of the hole when it might otherwise have been holed, and
  • In other cases the ball may hit the flagstick and finish in the hole when it might otherwise have missed.

However, some years ago, extensive testing was done to see the effects of leaving the flagstick in when putting from on the green and on short chips from off the green.

Leaving it in when making a stroke that was likely to pass the hole showed that there was a significantly better outcome with the ball hitting the flagstick than when the flagstick was out and the ball ran over the hole. The advantage when taking short putts was less conclusive.

Dave Wedzik and Erik J. Barzeski conducted a similar study and concluded that if your distance control is such that the ball will roll three feet past the hole or less (were the hole covered), there is no real advantage nor disadvantage. The ball isn’t moving fast enough for the results to change. But the faster your ball is moving, the greater the advantage. Putts that would otherwise miss can go in, and putts that would race several feet by will go in or stay much closer to the hole.

Their recommendation: if you’re certain that you can control your putt’s speed to within a few feet of the hole, go ahead and take the flagstick out if you’d like. If you think there’s a reasonably small chance that you could hit the ball more than three feet past the hole, leaving the flagstick in will offer an advantage, unless:

  • the flagstick is leaning toward your ball so much that a ball literally won’t fit in the hole.
  • the flagstick is rattling around in the hole due to high winds, in which case there’s a chance it could “knock” your ball away from the hole a bit.

Time will tell whether this change lasts, as it has a number of doubters.