flagstick
Is there an advantage to putting with the flagstick in? One veteran caddies says it’s probably just a matter of opinion. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

PGA Tour player Bryson DeChambeau believes the new rule change concerning penalties for hitting unattended flagsticks will give him an advantage, using the laws of physics and testing results to back up his case. But veteran caddie Joe Duplantis says what works for DeChambeau may not necessarily be right for your game.

Until 2019, there was a two-stroke penalty if a ball played from the putting green hit a flagstick left in the hole under Rule 13.2a(2). The United States Golf Association and Royal & Ancient agreed to amend that Rule, taking away the penalty and allowing players to have the choice of removing the flagstick or leaving it in place.

One of the reasons for the change is “on balance, it is expected that there is no advantage in being able to putt with the unattended flagstick in the hole,” according to the USGA website.

But DeChambeau, who studied physics at Southern Methodist, contends that’s not the case. And he may have data to back up his claim. Dave Pelz studied this issue as early as 1990, reporting his findings in Golf Magazine. Pelz found that there was a significant amount of energy transfer between ball and fiberglass flagstick, even on off-center hits. That resulted in more balls finding the bottom of the cup rather than being deflected away.

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Duplantis has seen several studies since then that confirm Pelz’s findings.

“What happened in each of the testings I’ve seen is that if a ball is at perfect speed, they go in the same, pin or not,” he said. “They got a Stimpmeter and rolled balls in the left-center and right-center where they would touch the pin, and where 50 percent were staying in at a certain speed, with the flag in it was 78 percent. So with a little bit of extra speed, where half of the balls were spinning out, there was a big jump.”

In a sport where hundreds of thousands of dollars may be riding on one or two putts, DeChambeau will take his chances by leaving the pin in.

Why? Because PGA Tour flagsticks are remarkably consistent from hole to hole and week to week, according to Duplantis. That means DeChambeau can count on the data he’s collected giving him consistent feedback, wherever he’s playing — with one major exception.

“I know [DeChambeau and other players] did the testing with the PGA Tour flags and they’re very consistent, week to week,” Duplantis said. “Bryson said he would not use [the strategy] at the U.S. Open because it’s a different flag. He didn’t get the same numbers at all.”

So should you leave the flagstick in while putting at your local course? Duplantis says it depends on your own opinion. Your results won’t match those collected by Pelz and DeChambeau, mainly because even the best manicured greens and pins won’t have the same consistency as a Tour event.

“There are guys at home leaving the flagstick in and everything,” Duplantis said. “But the flagsticks at every local club are not going to be the same.”

From a caddie’s perspective, those paired with DeChambeau are leaving the flagstick duties to his caddie for now.

“I think he and his caddie had a discussion because no one else is leaving it in,” Duplantis said. “They came to the conclusion, ‘We’re just going to have to develop a little routine, put it for me, take it out for them, put it back in for me.’ He’s got to be on his toes to respect the other players and it’s going in and out a few times on each green at first.”

But like any advancement, if other players believe DeChambeau’s onto something, they’ll eventually start using the same strategy, Duplantis said.

“If they keep the rule as is, I think more guys are going to start doing it,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it for years, because we’ve always been told to take it out. No one’s really done testing.

“But those putts [that ricochet off the flagstick] probably have too much speed anyway. It takes quite a bit of speed for a ball to hit the stick and stay in the air long enough to deflect away. So those putts wouldn’t have gone in anyway. But it’s going to be different with different flag sticks.”