The world of golf certainly has its share of rules and etiquette. If you play much at all, you already know that. But you should also know that, unless you are taking part in tournament play, there can be lots of wiggle room regarding some of the stricter procedures.
For instance, if you and your regular golfing buddies tend to play pretty casually, you may not think about the flagstick very much at all — and that’s fine. But if you are starting to get into serious gameplay, or want to make sure you know the appropriate etiquette for an important game, it’s probably a good idea for a quick refresher on #17 in the USGA’s “Official Rules of Golf,” which talks about the flagstick. On top of that there are some standard manners, etiquette and insider interpretations that aren’t covered in official rules. Here’s what you need to know to keep your cool and play like a pro:
1. Don’t hit the stick!
You can aim for the flagstick when you’re shooting off the tee box or from the fairway (that’s what it’s for, after all). However, the official rules stipulate that if you’re already on the green when you start a shot, hitting the stick, or even just landing your ball in the hole with the stick still in, will earn you an instant two-stroke penalty in stroke play, and an instant loss of the hole otherwise. Ouch!
2. Ask for assistance
You don’t want to hit the flagstick during a putt, but what if it’s a long shot or a sloped green? Sometimes it’s quite difficult to see exactly where the hole is, and you’ll want to have the flag in place while you shoot, as a visual marker. In that case, you need a friend or caddy to tend the flag. The flag-tender will stand directly next to or behind the flagstick, and will lift it straight up as your ball approaches. They will either replace it when you’re through, if the next putter wants to use the flag to help with aim, or gently lay it to the side.
3. Always offer assistance
Manners matter! Whether your group is doing ready play or formal pacing, it’s usually the last person who will putt who should offer to be flag-tender for other players in your group. If in doubt, however, there is no harm in being the one to offer. Stand very still to the side (so as not to be distracting), or just behind the flag, never in the lie of the ball. Lift up the flagstick when the putt appears to be about 24 inches from the hole. Whether or not the ball goes in, you can gently lay it to the side of the green if the next putter doesn’t need it for reference, or replace it in the hole to be tended again for the next putt.
4. Acknowledge each other
The official rules note that, “If the flagstick is in the hole and anyone stands near it while a stroke is being made, he is deemed to be attending the flagstick.” This means you have to be aware of where you’re standing on the green, and what your responsibilities are. If you stand near the flag but don’t lift it up for your opponent’s putt, and their ball hits the stick — well, you’ll have some explaining to do. Likewise, the rules state that, “If, prior to the stroke, the flagstick is attended, removed or held up by anyone with the player’s knowledge and he makes no objection, the player is deemed to have authorized it.”
If you’re playing casual golf with friends, it’s completely fine to just lift out the flagstick, and lay it gently to the side of the green while everyone putts, and then replace it. If you’re playing to win, however, make sure everyone in your group is on the same page about tending the flag, or there could be penalty strokes forthcoming.
— Cammy Pedroja