When the United States Golf Association changed the rule to allow keeping the flagstick in during putting, the thought was it could also expedite pace of play. What nobody anticipated was that it might have unintentionally provided an opportunity for golfers to damage the perimeter of the cup as they reached in to retrieve their golf ball.
Soon after the new rule went into effect Jan. 1, 2019, I started to hear complaints about the edge of the hole breaking down because so many golfers were reaching in with their hands to retrieve their golf ball while the flagstick remained. Call it “rumblings about crumbling.”
“By 1 PM it’s time to change the cup,” emailed one Southeast superintendent to me, later asking not to be publicly identified.
It should be noted that superintendents by professional temperament tend to be understandably cautious about stepping out into the public and complaining about golfers at their course. At the same time, most of them – the good ones, anyway - are perfectionists about course conditions and agonize over the slightest perceived flaw. You can tell because when they play golf they are always looking down at the turfgrass and at ground features rather than up at the sky or enjoying a long view.
Ok, so only a few weeks into the golf season and self-admittedly I’m a huge fan of the pin in rule change but I’ve noticed way more damage around the cup then normal for this time of year. This was after just one day. Usually cup edges rock solid this time of year w/good roots pic.twitter.com/l7iT3QFSCu— Tom Kaplun (@nhccsuper) May 2, 2019
I started to hear more complaints about broken edges of cups. And as I went around the last few months, I thought I observed here and there more than usual erosion of the cup edge. Of course there was no scientific baseline to make the judgment; nothing but perception. In such matters, once someone raises the suggestion of an issue it is not hard to find confirming evidence for it.
It’s possible there was more damage. Also possible that this was a typical golf-industry expression of animus towards the USGA and everything it does. To be sure, the rule change was part of a wide-ranging adjustment coordinated with the R&A and thus applicable throughout the world. But there are often unintended consequences to the best of intentions, and this appeared to among them.
The problem is simply that with the flagstick remaining in, there’s less room for a golfer to retrieve his or her ball from the bottom of the cup. As fingers grope the hand gouges – especially if the golfer is still wearing a glove. The physics of the case are simple. Something has to give. Usually it’s the most fragile component, which in this case is the combination of dirt and grass between the lower part of flagstick and the putting surface. Add up enough of these micro-violent confrontations and you end up with a cup whose edge looks like it’s been battered.
Patrick O’Brien, a veteran USGA Green Section agronomist, thinks it’s a non-issue. Or at least that whatever damage is there is not attributable to aggressive hands or the flagstick being left in. Like the trained turf geek that he is, he sees things in terms of grass types and says that the issue – at least in his region –has to do with the way in which widely adapted ultradwarf Bermudagrass throughout the Southeast handles the process of cup cutting. As he explains it, when the cup cutter goes in, it shears off the leaf blade from the stolons; what you see as damage is actually the frayed grass on the leading edge of the grain. It appears uneven, with the supporting soil slightly fragmented.
“It’s due to fingers reaching into the hole and knocking off the leaves where the stolons have been cut off,” O’Brien says. It happens naturally when lifting the ball from the hole and there isn't any way to prevent the leaves from falling off."
In terms of pace of play, the rule change allowing players to putt with the flagstick in has probably had a positive effect and certainly has had no negative impact. I know I’m playing a lot more golf where we simply decide at the outset to keep the flagstick in the entire way and seem – seem – to get around faster. The one possible cause of a slowdown would be where different players in the group have different preferences for keeping the flagstick in or out. But my experience here has been that once within a certain radius – it might be 15 feet, ten feet or whatever – everyone in the group generally agrees to the same practice.
At Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course in San Diego, pace of play on the recently renovated North Course has picked up in the last year. “We were at 4:55-4:50 hours per round,” says golf course manager Michael Jones. “This year it looks like it’s closer to 4:30. Between continuous putting, and the flagstick in, we are doing a little better."
While not attributing the improvement exclusively to the flagstick rule, Jones does credit it as "one of the tools in the tool kit" for enhancing pace of play.
When you’re registering 84,000 rounds yearly on eight-minute tee time intervals like they do on the North Course, every little bit helps to move play along. As for cup damage, Torrey Pines senior superintendent Richard McIntosh reports that ‘we tend to see damage to our cups just from the sheer number of rounds that we do each day. I have not noticed an increase in the damage to the edges of the cup since the rule changes allowing the flagstick to be left in."
Based upon an unscientific survey taken for this column, it appears that no more than half of golfers are keeping the flagstick in all the way through the final (close) putt. That would mean that half the time, players are removing the ball from a hole where the flagstick has already been pulled. It also seems that through education of golfers, altered practice and self-monitoring, players who might have been indifferent to the damage they were causing have adopted less invasive measures.
One trick that some superintendents have adopted to counter the damage and to bolster the structural integrity of the golf hole is simply painting the inside of the cup white. That’s what they do at Streamsong Resort. It looks good, provides a better target and holds up marginally better against fingers and hands grabbing for the ball.