The ‘worst rule ever invented,’ according to Gary Player
The Rules of Golf are a perpetual work in progress; in fact, the USGA and R&A recently announced a slew of rules changes that will be enacted on Jan. 1. Still, no matter how many tweaks the governing bodies make, the rules book will never be perfect in every golfer’s eyes. What edits would the best players in the world make to the laws of the game? We polled some of them. Next up in this series: Gary Player.
Among the 2019 rules changes that every golfer encounters in every round: the decision, when putting, as to whether to remove the flagstick from the hole — or keep it in. Before this elective was implemented, golfers had no choice but to pull the stick. But under the newly drafted Rule 13.2a(2): “There is no longer a penalty if a ball played from the putting green hits a flagstick left in the hole.”
The rule was amended largely to keep rounds moving.
As the USGA noted when explaining the change: “Allowing a player to putt with the flagstick in the hole without fear of penalty should generally help speed up play. When the players did not have caddies, the previous Rule could result in considerable delay.
“On balance it is expected that there is 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.”
Nine-time major winner Gary Player has long been a proponent of speeding up play and generally welcomes tactics that aid that cause. But allowing golfers to keep the flagstick in the hole, he said, is not the answer.
“I think the worst rule ever invented is leaving the pin, the flag in the hole,” he said. “You get these guys with their big hands, and they go to take the ball out of the cup, and they squeeze their hand in between the cup and the flag. They pull the cup up, and every cup you play now is raised.”
Player was exaggerating, but he’s not alone in his gripe.
In March 2019, less than three months after the new flagstick rule had been enacted, the Florida State Golf Association wrote in a blog post, “The main complaint we receive regarding players leaving the flagstick in the hole is that players reaching their hand into the hole to remove a ball, or using a suction cup on the end of their grip into the hole, are damaging the hole.”
The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in South Florida with more than 40 golf courses, has also expressed concerns about hole damage. Soon after the new rule went live, the local newspaper ran an article with the headline, “New rule regarding flagsticks an issue at golf courses in The Villages.”
The story cited the same issues as the FSGA piece and called on residents who use ball-removing tools to “simply pull the flag stick out gently and remove the golf ball with your device. This will ensure the integrity of the cup edges and allow players to enjoy the same crisp quality of the cups as the players before them.”
With problems come solutions. One fast-thinking entrepreneur invented a pliable flagstick attachment that prevents cup damage by prying fingers ($180 for a pack of 21!), and other remedies have sprung up on social media, including the “two-finger” ball-retrieval method demonstrated here by Shane Rice, the superintendent at Southern Dunes Golf and Country Club in Haines City, Fla.:
Whether leaving the flagstick in the hole offers any putting advantage is up for debate. Short-game whiz Dave Pelz’s research says, “You will hole a higher percentage of putts when you leave the flagstick in,” while other studies recommend that you’re better off pulling the stick. Player is squarely in the latter camp.
“They tell you you’ll hole more putts hitting the flag,” he said. “That’s hogwash. The greatest putters in the world never ever left a flag in a hole. And they were as good as putters as you’ll ever find today. The whole idea is to save time. It doesn’t save time. I’m all in favor of everything you can do to save time, but get the flag out. That’s my opinion.”
When asked about Player’s critique, a USGA spokesperson said, “While not addressed [in the rules], players should use caution when removing the ball or flagstick to avoid damaging the hole. However, players can repair damage to the putting green, which includes the hole, so if damage occurs [while] removing the ball or flagstick, it can be fixed, under Rule 13.1c.”