Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

Flagstick rule receives mixed reaction from players at Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA

Elite players including Koepka, Johnson, Fleetwood, and Westwood have different views on the new rule

Bryson DeChambeau likes to invoke the coefficient of restitution. Brooks Koepka thinks it’s weird. Dustin Johnson reckons he can’t do it. Tommy Fleetwood says to wait and see. And Lee Westwood thinks it will spoil the view.

All sports provoke controversy, scepticism, and often even ire when they attempt to modernise. Take football and its technological revolution. It is unlikely, for instance, that there is going to be a clear consensus in that sport on Video Assistant Referee anytime soon.

In golf, most of the current whys and wherefores surround not some hi-tech, microchipped, video surveillance system that requires a panel of officials sitting in judgement in a far-off edit suite. Rather, it relates to whether players choose to pick the flag out of the hole when they putt or not.

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Until the start of this year, golfers faced a two-shot penalty for hitting the flagstick when putting on the green. In the latest update to the Rules of Golf, that punishment has been removed.

Some have embraced the change. DeChambeau, the world No 5 from the United States, has found favour leaving the pin in the hole on the PGA Tour so far. He will only opt against doing so, he has said, when the flag is metal rather than fibreglass.

Unsurprisingly, the great and good who have assembled in the capital for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA have paid a little less thought to it than golf’s mad scientist.

Bryson DeChambeau lines up a putt at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Reuters
Bryson DeChambeau lines up a putt at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Reuters

Koepka, the world No 2, has played one tournament, the Sentry Tournament of Champions, under the new rules. He remains ambivalent on the issue of the flagstick alteration, but thinks it is unlikely he will change the formula that has served him so well to date, when he is on the green at the National Course this week.

“It just feels weird when it’s in,” Koepka said. “In Hawaii, the first few rounds it was out, and the last round I putted a lot with it in, just to test it out.

“I don’t like it. I’ve gone my whole career with pulling the flag out, why are we going to switch now? I seem to have done alright with it out.

“Maybe there’s one or two putts where I’ll leave it in, maybe downhill sliders. You look at a place like Augusta where you’ve got a real tricky putt, where if you miss you are probably going to run it three or four feet by. You can still be aggressive with the flag in.”

Johnson also played the Tournament of Champions. “I tried to hit a couple putts with the flag in in Hawaii and I couldn't do it,” Johnson, the world No 3, said.

“The only time there will be a situation where I'll leave the flag in is a long putt where normally I'll have my caddie tend the flag.”

Dustin Johnson has tried putting with the flagstick in but "couldn't do it". Getty Images
Dustin Johnson has tried putting with the flagstick in but "couldn't do it". Getty Images

Westwood says he is unlikely to change the method that has lasted him to this point, either. While DeChambeau has referenced COR - or the ratio of the final to initial relative velocity between two objects after they collide - Westwood thinks the target area is smaller with the flag in.

“I’d probably find it a bit off-putting, to be honest,” Westwood said. “I like the cleanness of nothing there.

“To me, it makes the hole smaller. There’s a chance of it hitting the flag if it's going a bit fast. I suppose there’s a chance of it hitting the flag and going in and slowing it down, but there's a chance of it hitting the flag and bouncing out.”

For defending Abu Dhabi champion Fleetwood, adapting to the new rules – which also include make drops from knee height rather than shoulder, and being able to tend to spike marks before putting - will be a case of trial and error.

“I don’t really have any science to it,” Fleetwood said of the flagstick change. “I know that there’s lip outs that you can have that can catch friction of the pin that go in when they may have a chance of missing.

“But you can also hit the pin dead-centre and it can jar out. I don’t really know if there’s a formula for it. Until we’ve tried it, we won’t know.”

Updated: January 16, 2019 05:10 PM

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