It appears that players will be able to putt with the flagstick in the hole at the Masters tournament if they choose – even if it looks weird.

Reports circulated in the golf media recently that the Augusta National Golf Club was considering implementing a local rule for the Masters that would prohibit players from leaving the flagstick in the hole while putting. Under the new rules that became effective January 1, it is no longer a penalty if a ball played from the putting green strikes the flagstick. [Rule 13.2a(2)] Player reaction to the new rule is mixed.

Now, we all know that the Masters is “a tradition unlike any other” in many ways. The club has a long history of controlling virtually every detail of the tournament. For decades, they restricted television coverage to the back nine, and banned Gary McCord from the CBS broadcasting team for referring to “body bags” around the “bikini-waxed” greens. “Patrons” (never use the term “spectators”) are prohibited from carrying cell phones and may not solicit autographs on the course or (God forbid) run between holes. Caddies are still required to wear the traditional white jumpsuits.

So when reports surfaced that Augusta National was considering a local rule prohibiting putting with the flagstick in the hole, observers took it as just another effort to preserve the unique traditions of the Masters. Putt with the flagstick in the hole? You might as well uproot the azaleas and forsythia, let the caddies wear shorts, and organize raucous cheering sections at Amen Corner like the 16th hole of the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

As it turns out, Masters chairman Fred Ridley ultimately indicated that the club would probably not adopt such a rule. “We think it’s important that there be some consistency in top championship golf, and so you can expect that the Masters tournament will look very much, if not the same, as what you’re seeing in the major championships and professional tours.”

When the news of the possible Masters flagstick rule broke, reports seemed to assume that, as with other facets of the tournament, the club could do whatever it pleased. One account stated that “any tournament organizer or sponsor has the prerogative to create a local rule for its event.”

Not so fast. The fact is, the club lacks the authority to implement such a local rule. Even Augusta National doesn’t have the power to waive or modify the rules of golf. This was clear under the former rules, and is equally clear under the new provisions governing local rules.

Generally, a tournament committee has fairly wide latitude to implement local rules for a competition. Most local rules concern characteristics of the course or unusual conditions. For example, common local rules address preferred lies during winter; lift, clean, and place relief during muddy conditions; relief from the accumulation of leaves (popular in New England); and rules relating to unique features of a course such as boundaries and drop areas.

But the Committee Procedures accompanying the new rules impose an important constraint: “In order to ensure that play is conducted in accordance with the Rules of Golf, a Committee must not use a Local Rule to waive or modify the Rules of Golf simply because it might prefer a Rule to be different.” Rules decisions under a similar provision of the former rules made clear that such a local rule involving the removal of flagstick was not authorized.

Thomas Pagel, senior Managing Director of Governance for the USGA, told Northeast Golf that although the new Committee Procedures were intended to allow clubs and committees more flexibility in adopting local rules, the USGA “has not authorized a local rule to require players to remove the flagstick.” He explained that such a rule would waive or modify the rules of golf.

“We’re in an observational mode as it relates to a number of rules,” commented Pagel. “I know that there’s been a lot of discussion around the flagstick rule, and I think that’s a good thing. This entire process has been about dialogue and communication, and having those conversations. But as of now, there’s no local rule that’s been authorized or written.” Pagel added that he doesn’t foresee the USGA authorizing such a local rule, but emphasized that “we’re always open to discussion.”

Max Doctoroff, Tournament Director of the New England PGA, echoed Pagel’s comments. “While the Committee can write local rules that are not taken word-for-word from the Model Local Rules, there is a list of principles we must follow when writing our local rules,” he explained, citing the principle that local rules may not modify the rules of golf. He added: “Long story short, people are going to have to get over the ‘weirdness’ of putting with the flagstick in the hole. If they don’t like it, they’re more than welcome to pull it out when they putt.”

Weird or not, if Bryson DeChambeau wants to leave the flagstick in when facing a long, downhill putt on the 13th green at Augusta to prevent his ball from rolling off the green into Rae’s Creek, he’ll no doubt be able to do so. As long as his caddie is wearing the requisite white jumpsuit.

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