Should I pull the pin for you?

So, what’s your verdict? Would Davis Thompson’s putt on 17 at the American Express have gone in without the flagstick? Or did the flagstick keep it from rolling farther away from the hole?

For those who weren’t switching back and forth between golf and football last Sunday, Thompson was 1 stroke behind Jon Rahm on the 17th hole. His 48 foot putt for birdie (and a tie for the lead) hit the flagstick and bounced to a foot or so away. He tapped in for par and Rahm went on to win. Golf chatter was full of “should Thompson have pulled the pin?”

So, what’s the evidence? You’d think there would be a good answer to the question. Dave Pelz says, in the long run, the flagstick helps more often than it hurts. Of course, “in the long run” means it may hurt every now and then. Others have conducted extensive experimental work and come to the conclusion of “it depends, maybe.” Welcome to life.

I’m sure we’ve all hit putts we swore would have gone in without the stick, and we’ve all hit putts that went in because they hit the stick. Of course, we remember the ones where the stick hurt us more than the ones that helped us, because that’s the way people are. We feel the pain of a loss more strongly than the joy of an equal gain and we like to believe we win because of skill and lose because of bad luck – a perfect recipe for “that flagstick screwed me!!”. And those putts that hit the stick going 90 miles an hour and went in? They probably would have hit the back of the hole, jumped a foot in the air, and fallen in anyway. Right?

Add the evidence all together and it looks to me like it’s a wash. In long-term averages, the flagstick probably doesn’t help or hurt a putt go in more often, but it does make the next putt shorter than it would have been, most of the time. And it depends on whether it’s a downhill, uphill, or sidehill putt; how fast the greens are; how heavy the flagstick is; how worn the edges of the hole are; the grain of the green; blah, blah, blah.

I had one critical putt a year or so ago hit the stick and bounce out. I can’t swear it would have gone in without the stick, but I’m going to putt with it out when I think the putt is reasonably makeable and I’m not looking for a backboard to stop the putt. I may be wrong, but I like the look of the hole with the stick out, that bounce-out miss lives rent-free in the back of my brain, and if I miss I want to be able to say “My bad,” not “&*!@ing flagstick!”. That’s my plan until I change my mind.

And I’m going to watch Davis Thompson. There’s no way of knowing if his putt would have gone in, and he said he has always left the stick in on long putts. I’m betting he’ll be pulling that pin more often from here on.

Winners of the recent games at the Buckhorn are posted at his link. I have no idea if they pulled the pin or not.

Update: Now that I have the results of the Jan. 23 game, I know about one winner’s pin-pulling habits. I played with Arnie, and the closer he is to the hole, the more likely it is that he will pull the pin.

6 Replies to “Should I pull the pin for you?”

  1. Guess we have been partners long enough to agree on golf stratagies. I don’t usually want the pin in unless, as you said, the type of putt warrants it.

    1. There’s something about regular partnering that leads to some kind of osmosis. I don’t recall us ever discussing the issue but I also don’t remember ever doing the “in or out dance” on the green, either. It just happens.

    1. Thanks, Randy. It seems to me that the most important part of the decision is likely “do you feel comfortable with the pin in or out on this putt?” It’s hard to make a good stroke if you don’t feel comfortable, settled and committed, no matter what the data might say about the best strategy.

    2. Flagstick in gives a ball end destination visual above ground level. The trade off is that the stick does take up some room in the cup and will on occasion clank the putt out. See: Davis Thompson.

      1. I think Davis Thompson’s decision to leave the stick in from 48 feet was reasonable – it did give him an easily seen target, it’s what he typically does, and we can’t know for sure if the stick kept his putt out of the hole. It might have just avoided a power lip-out and made his second putt shorter. I missed the guy’s name, but Michael Breed had a guest on his show that had rolled 5000 test putts at varying speeds, angles, lengths, etc. and the data said the stick in or out was a wash as far as overall make percentage. But leaving it in did make the next putt shorter if the first putt missed.

        I like to leave it out on shorter putts because I feel more comfortable and confident over the putt, and that leads to a better stroke for me. (Most of the time.) I like to visualize my ball’s end destination as below ground, and the closer I am, the more I can see down into the hole. Of course, your mileage may vary.

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