By John Van der Borght
Rules School: The Flagstick Through The Years
Dec 20, 2011
This article is the fourth in a six-part series exploring the history of The Rules of Golf. The objective of this series is to give the reader greater clarity on why Rules changes occur and what factors are considered when making, or not making, a Rules change. In conjunction with The R&A, the USGA writes, interprets and maintains The Rules of Golf to uphold the tradition and integrity of the game. The two organizations are joint authors and owners of The Rules of Golf and Decisions on the Rules of Golf. The Rules are revised on a quadrennial basis, with the next revision scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2012.
The Rules of Golf are written to cover all the man-made items that the player will encounter on the golf course. Most of these are covered under Rule 24 – Obstructions. Some of them, such as tee markers or a player’s equipment, are important enough to warrant some special coverage within the Rules. Only one man-made item has its own Rule, the flagstick (Rule 17). The definition and Rules regarding the flagstick have evolved extensively through the years.
What is a flagstick?
Many golfers refer to the flagstick as a “pin”, but within the Rules it goes by the more formal name.
While flagsticks were in use for many years before 1952, the flagstick was not a defined term in the Rules of Golf until then. The 1952 definition consisted of one sentence:
The “flagstick” is a movable straight indicator with or without bunting or other material attached, centered in the hole to show its position.
The reference to “other material” allows courses such as Merion Golf Club to use wicker baskets instead of a flag.
In 1960, it was realized that a non-circular flagstick would yield varying results when a ball struck it and that a player could position the flagstick in the hole to gain an advantage from this, so a second sentence was added:
It must be circular in cross-section.
By 2004, there was a concern that flagsticks may be produced which would have a soft shock-absorbent material added to stop balls from bouncing off them. Because of this, a final sentence was added:
Padding or shock absorbent material that might unduly influence the movement of the ball is prohibited.
While the definition does not state how tall a flagstick should be, the USGA recommends that it be at least seven (7) feet in length. If you have played in Scotland, you probably saw flagsticks that are quite a bit shorter than that in order to keep them in the hole when it is windy. The USGA recommends that the diameter of the flagstick be a maximum of ¾ of an inch, from three inches above the ground to the bottom of the hole. This will leave ample room for a ball to go in the hole when the flagstick has not been removed. Anyone who has made a hole-in-one should appreciate that specification.
The Early Rules
The first written Rules of Golf, published in 1744 by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, did not mention the flagstick or any other object that would help the golfer find his way to the hole; even so, flagsticks were probably in use well before they appear in the Rules.
The first mention of the flagstick in the Rules is in the 1875 Rules of Golf from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. Even then, the only concern was for the occasional times when a ball came to rest against the flagstick without going in the hole. If the ball was resting against the flagstick, the flagstick could be removed and if the ball fell in the hole it was considered holed. There was nothing said about what should be done if the ball didn’t fall into the hole. It would be much later before a ruling was specified for this situation.
The 1895 edition of the Rules of Golf published by the USGA gave either side in a match the right to have the flagstick removed, but there was no requirement that it be removed. Until 1956, the Rules allowed an opponent in match play to require that the flagstick be removed to prevent it assisting the player.
Over the next few years after the 1895 edition, there were a number of changes to the Rules regarding the flagstick in stroke play. By 1910, the penalty for striking an unattended flagstick for any shot from within 20 yards of the hole was standardized as two strokes. There continued to be no penalty in match play.
The penalty for striking an attended flagstick, or the person attending it, was set at two strokes in stroke play and a loss of hole in match play.
Modern Rules Changes
In more modern times, the Rules regarding the flagstick have been modified frequently.
From 1956 until 1964, players could leave the flagstick in the hole even when putting, and there was no penalty for striking the flagstick. In many older films you will see players putting with the flagstick still in the hole.
The 1960 Rules of Golf brought wording which made it a penalty to remove a flagstick, which was not attended before the stroke, while a ball was in motion. While this is still a penalty, in 2004 wording was added stating that this would only be a penalty if removing the flagstick might influence the movement of the ball. If the ball had passed the hole and was unlikely to come back or it was almost stopped short of the hole and wouldn’t reach it, there would no longer be a penalty.
The prohibition of the unauthorized attendance of the flagstick by an opponent or fellow-competitor was added in 1960.
In 1964, the Rule was changed so that it became a penalty for a ball to strike an unattended flagstick for any stroke made from the putting green or within 20 yards of the hole. Even chip shots or shots from bunkers were penalized if the player was within that 20-yard circle. This was the first time that a penalty for striking an unattended flagstick was introduced in match play. In 1968, the Rule was modified to the modern version, where a player is only penalized for striking the unattended flagstick when putting.
While the Rule for striking the unattended flagstick has remained the same since then, there have been other changes to the Rule. In 1976, the Rules finally told players what should be done if a ball resting against a flagstick did not fall into the hole when the flagstick was removed. From that point forward, the ball would be placed on the lip of the hole.
Prior to 2008, if a flagstick had been removed and placed on the ground before the stroke, it could not be moved once a ball was in motion. In 2008, a change to the Obstruction Rule (Rule 24) was made to allow a removed flagstick, including one lying on the ground, to be moved when a ball is motion. This could be done by anyone without penalty.
As you can see, even something as simple as a flagstick requires Rules which are continually undergoing review and revision by the Rules of Golf Committee.
John Van der Borght is a manager of Rules and Competitions for the USGA. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first written Rules of Golf, published in 1744 by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, did not mention the flagstick or any other object that would help the golfer find his way to the hole; even so, flagsticks were probably in use well before they appear in the Rules. (USGA Museum)
From 1956 until 1964, players could leave the flagstick in the hole even when putting, and there was no penalty for striking the flagstick. A Rules revision, however, made this a penalty. Above, Carter Toms tends the flagstick for his father, David, during a practice round in the 2011 U.S. Open. (USGA Museum)
The 1952 definition of a flagstick as a "movable straight indicator with or without bunting or other material attached" allows courses such as Merion Golf Club to use wicker baskets instead of a flag. (USGA Museum)