At 80-plus pages, and consisting of 32 separate subdivisions, the Rules of Golf are not easy to throw a mental lasso around. It is best to wade into them and scoop up a couple of big handfuls of information, then mull these over. As you progress toward becoming a Rules Semi-Semi-Expert, pick one section of the little book and study it. More importantly, understand its essential motivations. Skipping over the regulations about Stipulated Rounds and other formal tournament niceties, start with what we might call the “People Rules,” or the Rules that most affect etiquette. For example, Tending the Flagstick. With a little logic and some knowledge of the history of flagstick-related Rules, you can go a long way toward remembering the particulars of the current Rule.
Rule 17, titled “The Flagstick,” takes up nearly two pages in the pocket-sized Rules of Golf. Nowhere in those two pages, of course, are any reasons given as to why certain acts are allowed or prohibited. If the book of Rules attempted to explain all its purposes and reasoning, it would be far from pocket-sized.
And yet, most golfers who wish to keep the Rules straight in their minds need to know the goals and purposes behind them. Detailed, compulsory language that seems arbitrary simply does not stick in the memory. So here, in brief, is the reasoning behind the various aspects of the flagstick Rule. Most of it is so simple and rational as to stand on its own. Commentary and conjecture is provided in the few areas where it is not.
1) A player within striking distance of the hole needs–and deserves–to know where the hole is. Therefore, courses are allowed to install flagsticks, and players hitting shots to the green are allowed to have these flagsticks left in the hole–or even held up over the hole, in instances where the flag otherwise wouldn’t be visible. (But don’t confuse this right with the prohibition in Rule 8-2 against indicating the line of play other than on the putting green… in other words, you could not have someone march to the front of the green with the flag and stand there while you play from a deep hollow. Nor could they do so without a flag)
2) Putting isn’t billiards–golfers on the putting green are generally expected to roll the ball into the cup without bouncing it off flagsticks or anything else, including another player’s ball. Therefore, if you putt from somewhere on the green and hit the unattended flagstick, it’s a two-stroke penalty. [This being said, we have to note that in match play–as opposed to stroke play–you are allowed, without penalty, to strike another player’s ball on the green. All things considered, however, the match player’s right to strike another ball on the green is quite vestigial, given that nearly everyone lifts his ball on the green and marks it.] Meanwhile, if you were so knavish as to ask your partner, or a conspiratorial caddie, to purposely try and deflect the ball with their feet or the flagstick–either by manipulating it or by laying it somewhere near the hole–the match-play penalty is loss of hole and the stroke-play penalty is two strokes. Naturally, 98 percent of the time this would happen accidentally, but this part of the Rule is easier to appreciate and remember if you visualize someone breaking it intentionally.
3) A golfer is extremely vulnerable to visual distractions while putting and deserves an uncluttered view of his line, the hole and the holes’ surroundings. Therefore, it is against the Rules to attend the flagstick or remove it or hold it up if the golfer playing a stroke doesn’t want you to. This is probably the most obscure and even odd stipulation of Rule 17. Was it set down in black and white because golfers were actually refusing to leave the flagstick alone while others were trying to chip or putt? The most natural circumstance that comes to mind is of a player absent-mindedly removing the pin while a ball played from off the green is rolling swiftly toward the hole. Left in place, the pin could keep the ball from rolling too far–on the off chance the ball was on target to actually strike it.
4) Tending the pin is a widely esteemed act of golf etiquette. For whatever reason, the above-described prohibition against “unauthorized attendance” is written into the flagstick Rule. However, in order not to go overboard and punish good intentions, the Rules require a player who doesn’t want the flagstick attended to state that preference clearly in advance. If the player says nothing, he cannot stroke his putt and then yelp out a protest that the pin had been wrongly attended and his opponent or fellow-competitor deserves to be penalized.
5) Hitting the flagstick from off the green is an occurrence which, for practical reasons, cannot be subjected to strict Rules treatment. Especially in the absence of caddies, play would take forever if removal of the stick was required on all approach shots. Plus, balls played from off the green are at least as likely to bounce off the stick unfavorably as favorably. Therefore, a Rule against hitting the flagstick from off the green is unnecessary and would only hold up play.
Ah, but what about the ball that is putted or chipped from an excellent lie just inches off the green and within 15 or 20 feet of the hole? Yes, that is an exception to the above logic. You could even call it a loophole in the Rule. But the only way to close this loophole would be to institute a “20-foot rule,” which would have its own undesirable complications. (Relax, rules historians, we are aware that up until 1908 there was indeed a “20-yard rule” requiring the stick to be pulled on any shot from that distance or nearer. But the 20-yard mandate was drafted when flagsticks were just becoming standard, before golfers realized how seldom a flagstick could actually help a niblick shot from off the green either ricochet into the hole or stop within tap-in range.
To put Rule 17 into neat, summary form, here are its requirements in order of importance:
>> You are allowed to have the flagstick attended for you on any shot from any location.
>> You may strike the flagstick with a shot from off the green, then play your next without penalty from wherever the ball has come to rest (or pull the ball from the hole and accept congratulations)
>> You may not strike the flagstick with a putt from on the putting green. (Two strokes or loss of hole)
>> You are not to attend the flagstick for someone who doesn’t wish you to do so. (But if you do so without being asked, and no one protests before the stroke, then no one can protest afterward.)
>> You may not hit the flagstick with your ball when it’s out of the hole, nor may you hit the person attending the stick, nor anything they are holding or carrying, etc. (Two strokes or loss of hole).
>> If your ball is stuck between the flagstick and the edge of the hole, you simply pull the pin out and watch to see if the ball falls into the hole or rolls out onto the green. (If the cup is properly installed, there’s no reason the ball shouldn’t fall in.)
No explanation of the flagstick Rule would be complete without addressing the most common point of confusion–even panic–involving the flagstick. We refer to that moment when a player is about to putt or chip from just off the green and looks up to see that someone is tending the pin. “You can’t tend it, I’m off the green,” the player will protest. It’s not that he wouldn’t want this service performed. Nor, in many cases, does he actually believe his ball will strike the flagstick and have it serve as a useful “backstop.” He is usually just worried that some Rule is being broken.
But his fears are unfounded. Under the Rules, you can ask to have the flagstick removed or attended while you are on the tee of a 540-yard par-5. The relevant point is that tending the pin for someone who is off the green is totally unnecessary, since we are permitted under the Rules to hit the flagstick with our shots from off the green. As noted, the golfer playing from off the green is free to call a penalty on a well-meaning soul who attends the flagstick without this player’s knowledge. But that is exceedingly difficult to imagine happening.