Frayed at the edge

Is the new flagstick rule affecting turf conditions?
Is the new flagstick ruling implemented in 2019 causing excessive damage to cups?

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.

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.

Putting with the flagstick in has been popular among pros and amateurs alike since the 2019 rule change.

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.

Torrey Pines North is one of the country's busiest courses and the new ruling has aided pace of play efforts.

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.

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Follow Brad on Twitter
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This may help both with not touching the flag stick and even after.

www.tapitgolf.com

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The R&A did a similar article a while back. It is truly a problem I am a course owner in Arizona and we had significant issues with it. However the new virus safety actions such as noodles in the cup ETC have significantly reduced the damage.

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Here's another Australian solution 'Leave It In'. This on keeps the ball attached to the flagstick so that golfers don't have to even bend over to pick up their ball. https://www.leaveitin.golf

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Here is a solution .... https://www.facebook.com/ozgolfinnovation/videos/2218025565173108/?modal=admin_todo_tour

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Strongly disagree. All day long I watch closer to 90% of of the senior golfers on my course leave the flag stick in on the 8th green. By 4 pm the cup is badly damaged and see it happen. The rule change helped profits, but not my game.

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All the USGA has to do is slide a collar down the shaft like on the putting greens. This will facilitate ball removal and save the cup rims! If you make collars with a central hole 1/2” it can be slid down any flag stick. I do this on my green and it works just fine!

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Hi Gregory, Check out our product that solves all the problems pertaining to Covid and once back to normal playing conditions, PINPAL golf flagstick collars prevent damage to the cups, saves golf courses money and speed play. Very affordable and conforms to the rules of golf pertaining to the flagstick while products with lift systems that use rods and sleeves do not, as they will influence the movement of the ball, act in a shock absorbing manner and in some cases not keep the flagstick round as per the rules. pinpalcollar.com

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The Putt returner @backathecup

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backathecup is the web site check it out the putt returner

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Since the rule change of leaving the flag stick in while putting on the green (which I am in favor of) I have noticed significant additional damage done to the edges of the cups. I personally have large hands and find it hard to retrieve my ball without effecting the edges. I now pull the pin to avoid doing damage.

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Since January the guys at my club have been wrestling with the best solution to avoiding back stress, hole damage (ladies diamond rings, big hands, and more) watching others struggling, etc.. What we came up with is similar to the putting green attached bottom, with some modifications. A flexible material so as to not damage the course on even the rainiest of days for those who remove the flagstick and lay it down. The bottom would be removable from the flagstick, if a tournament had a preference..

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Frayed at the edge