For a game of precision, golf requires a lot of guesswork, too. Here's a classic conundrum: When facing a putt or short chip from just off the green, should you take the flag out or leave it in?
Any time you believe you've got a chance to hole a shot, you should consider these options. The basic rule of thumb is to take it out if you think the ball will be moving slowly when it reaches the hole, and leave it in if you fear it will be rolling quickly. Put another way, leave it in if you want the insurance of a backstop. Otherwise, yank it.
There's no right or wrong choice in these situations – it's a guessing game, after all – and it often comes down to personal preference. Let's elaborate a on some of the options you might face and the conventional wisdom for pulling/leaving the flag:
- Playing onto a fast green and/or sharply downhill – leave the flag in.
- Playing onto a slow green and/or uphill – take the flag out.
- Hitting a soft, lofted pitch or chip – take the flag out.
- Hitting a low, running chip – leave the flag in.
For the purpose of depth perception, it's wise to leave the flag in any time you're more than 30 feet away. Also, the rules allow you to have a playing partner tend the flag when you're off the green, but it must be removed after you hit the shot. It's not at the tender's discretion to leave it in based on the speed the ball is moving.
Flag In or Out on Short Greenside Shots?
In golf, it is often the small decisions you make which have a major impact on your final score. There are countless decisions to be made from the time you start on the first tee until you reach the final green, and the player who makes the best decisions is often the one who comes out on top. Sure, you have to execute on those decisions, but everything starts with a choice. Good choices usually lead to good results, while poor choices can easily lead to wasted shots and mounting frustration.
One of the small but important choices you will face on the golf course is whether to leave the flag in the hole or take it out when playing a short greenside shot. This is a classic golf debate, and you can easily find players on both sides of the argument if you ask around at your local club. Some feel that you should always leave the flag in, as it can help to stop the ball if the shot is traveling too quickly. Others, however, feel that taking the flag out is the right way to go, as the flag will occasionally knock the ball out when it would have otherwise fallen in the cup. So who is right? Well, in reality, neither of these two groups is correct. As you will see explained in the content below, you should actually be making this choice on a case-by-case basis.
The importance of this point should be obvious to even a beginning golfer. If you leave the flag in and it stops the ball from falling in the cup, you lose a stroke that can never be recovered. Or, if you take the flag out when leaving it in would have stopped the ball in its tracks, you will also lose a stroke that you can't get back. Either way you go, making the wrong choice on this point has the potential to cost you a shot. Each shot is precious on the golf course, so you want to get this right as often as you can. While it might be impossible to make the right choice 100% of the time, you can use sound logic and reasoning to put the odds in your favor on most short greenside shots.
Naturally, you are going to need to hit good chip and pitch shots for this point to even be a factor at all. If your chip shots miss the target by several feet, they certainly aren't going to hit the hole – so it won't matter what you have done with the flag. This simply highlights the importance of working on your short game. Many amateur golfers spend hours working on their swings while ignoring the short game completely. That is a big mistake, and those players are unlikely to improve anytime soon. The short game is incredibly important in golf, as more than half of your shots are going to take place within 100 yards of the hole, and many of those within 20 yards or so. Learn how to control the ball both on and around the greens and you will quickly become a better golfer.
The content below is written from the perspective of a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please reverse the directions as necessary.
The Basic Idea
As stated earlier, many golfers decide early on which side of this debate they are going to take – and then they stick with that side on each and every shot they hit from around the greens. Unfortunately, golf isn't that simple. There are too many variables involved in the short game to decide that you are going to do the same thing each time. Some occasions will call for the flag to be left in the hole, while others will dictate that you should remove it prior to your shot. Your job, then, is simple – to learn when it is best to take the flag out, and when you should leave it in.
To get started on this discussion, let's review a few key points that will help you make your choice prior to every greenside short game shot you encounter.
- The flag will help a fast-moving shot. If you think that the ball is going to be moving quickly around the hole, you should almost certainly leave the flag in place. A ball that is moving at high speed around the cup isn't going to fall in on its own – it will simply skip right over the hole and keep going – so you might as well give yourself a chance to hit the flag. If the ball hits the flag while moving quickly, there are a couple of potential outcomes. Should the ball happen to strike the flag square in the center, it should lose all its speed and drop into the cup. Or, the ball could strike the flag off-center, and ricochet off to one side. Even in that case, you will still be better off than if you'd taken the flag out, since the impact with the flag will have taken away some of the ball's momentum. In cases where you anticipate the ball to be moving quite quickly near the hole, your choice is a no-brainer – leave the flag in and give it a chance to help you.
- Take the flag out when speed control is not an issue. As you might expect, you are going to want to go the other way when you will have control over the speed of the ball. If you think the ball will be traveling a controlled, modest speed when it reaches the cup – in other words, the ball will stop within a few feet of the hole – go ahead and take the flag out. In this case, you don't need the help of the flag to bring the ball to a stop, as the ball is already losing speed on its own. Most likely, leaving the flag in the hole in this case would only stand to cost you a shot. A slow-moving ball that hits the flag might still fall it, but it may be kicked out as well. There is no reason to take that chance, since speed control is not an issue in here. When you have a high degree of confidence that the ball will be traveling at a controlled speed, ask for the flag to be removed so you can be sure that it won't rob you of a stroke.
- Have a preferred option as a 'tie-breaker'. There will be plenty of greenside shots where you know speed is going to be a problem. There will also be plenty of shots where you know that it will be easy to control your speed. Deciding on what to do with the flag is going to be pretty simple in those cases. It will not be so simple, however, on the shots that fall in-between. For shots where you aren't quite sure what to expect in terms of speed, you need to have a pre-determined plan of action. In other words, you need to decide whether you are going to default to taking the flag out or leaving it in. It is important to have a default decision already make so you don't have to spend time and mental energy making the choice while on the course. You always want this choice to be simple, so make up your mind in advance on what you will do for the in-between cases.
It is really the issue of speed control that is going to mostly make up your mind on this importance choice. When the ball is going to be moving gently around the area of the cup, there is no need to ask the flag to help you. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with looking for a little help when you know speed may be a problem.
Making an Accurate Prediction
The tips above are only going to be helpful if you are able to accurately predict how fast your ball is going to be moving around the area of the hole. Without the ability to determine in advance how fast the ball is likely to be moving, you won't be able to make your flag in-or-out choice with any degree of confidence.
So, how do you figure out ahead of time how fast the ball is going to be moving? Well, the first thing you can do is practice your short game. By spending time working on your chipping and pitching technique, you will get better and better at controlling the speed of your ball. There is no substitute for reliable execution in the short game, so you are going to need to invest practice time if you want to gain more and more control over the ball.
However, not everything in the short game is under your control out on the course. The list below contains a number of variables that you will need to take into consideration as you predict the speed of your ball for any given greenside shot.
- The slope of the green. This is one of the biggest points that you need to keep in mind. Obviously, the ball is likely to be moving quickly when the green is sloped away from you. Or, when the green is sloped toward you, the ball will stop quickly. When you first begin to assess the shot that you need to hit, the slope of the green should be among your initial concerns. You may be able to control the speed of the ball properly on a shot that is only slightly downhill, but chip shots played significantly downhill are almost always going to run out with plenty of speed. Take note of the location of the hole compared to the slope and decide how well you think you can manage your speed.
- How much space between you and the hole? Generally speaking, it will be harder to control your speed on a short shot as compared to a long one. When playing from the short side of the green – the side where the hole is cut – you will have to execute a quality shot in order to bring the ball to a stop. Of course, slope is going to play a factor on this point as well, as chipping uphill is relatively easy, even from the short side. If you should find that you face the dreaded combination of a downhill chip shot coming from the short side, it is almost certain that you will need to leave the flag in the hole.
- The speed of the putting surface. You usually don't think much about the speed of the greens until you are actually putting, but this is an important variable when chipping as well. On fast greens, you are naturally going to have a harder time controlling the speed of your chip shots. If for example, you bring together a fast green and a downhill slope, it will be nearly impossible to stop the ball in a timely manner. On slow greens, however, stopping the ball is easy. You will likely find many opportunities to take the flag out when chipping to slow greens simply because it will be no problem to control your speed successfully.
- The lie of the ball in the grass. This is another point that is easy to overlook. When you walk up to your greenside shot, be sure to take a close look at the lie of the ball. The lie has a lot to do with the spin you can generate, and spin has a lot to do with speed control. A clean lie on short grass will enable you to spin the ball without a problem, where a lie that is down in the rough will take all spin off the shot. Many shots played from the deep rough will be played with the flag in the cup because you won't have spin available to help you stop the ball.
The list above might appear to be a bit intimidating at first. After all, that does seem like a lot to think about in the short time you have to prepare for your chip shot. In reality, this list will become easy for you to work through with just a bit of practice. You will start to see these things without really thinking about them, and you will instinctually know which shots are going to give you trouble from a speed perspective. Practice your speed control while working on your short game so you can rely on both your touch and your course-reading skills to predict the speed of the ball while chipping and pitching.
Reading Your Chip Shots
If you are like most amateur golfers, you probably only think about reading the green once you are actually on the green. However, you should be reading your chip shots as well, because there is going to be plenty of roll out on the average chip shot. If you fail to read a chip shot, and you simply aim directly at the hole, the ball is almost certain to break off-line in one direction or another. Take a moment to read your chip and pitch shots and you will be far more likely to make one from time to time. After all, this entire article is about what happens when the ball is chipped successfully to the hole – but that topic is going to be irrelevant unless you read your chips just right.
The first step in the process of reading your chip shots is determining exactly where on the green you would like the ball to land. This is usually referred to as your 'landing spot', and it is a big piece of the chipping puzzle. Think about what club you are going to use for the shot, how far you need to hit the shot to reach the hole, what kind of lie you have in the grass, and more as you make your plan. Selecting an appropriate landing spot for each of your chips and pitches is a big part of getting up and down on a regular basis.
Once your landing spot is clearly defined, the next step in the process is to read the slope of the green between your landing spot and the hole itself. Of course, the slope of the green prior to your landing spot is irrelevant, as the ball will not be on the ground at that point. Walk up to your landing spot and read the green between there and the hole, just as you would when putting. You should be considering both the uphill/downhill nature of the green, as well as any side-to-side break which may be present. Just as is the case when putting, you should always play a little more break than you think when hitting chip shots. Most golfers under-read the greens, so add just a bit to your chipping read and give the ball plenty of room to fall in on the high side.
When you are finished with your read, it will be time to make the call on whether the flag is going to stay in the hole or be removed. You should have the information you need at this point, since you will have read the slope of the ground as part of the process. Once the flag situation is settled and you are back at your ball, focus in on the landing spot you selected and execute your technique with confidence.
Going with a Hunch
Throughout this article, we have talked about speed being the number one determining factor in whether or not you should leave the flag in the hole. And, to be sure, this is a good strategy to use. The speed that your ball is moving will decide whether the flag can be a positive or negative influence, so you should focus first on this point.
However, it is important to note that this decision does have some 'wiggle room' for personal preference and gut feeling. For example, if you are standing over a chip shot that is straight downhill all the way to the cup, the analytical side of your brain will be telling you to leave the flag where it is. That might be the best call by the numbers, but it just might not look right to you in certain circumstances. You need to feel comfortable and confident over all shots that you hit, meaning sometimes you have to go against the book just to put your mind in a good place.
From time to time, there is nothing wrong with playing your hunch rather than basing your decision on the facts in front of you. It would be a mistake to go against the percentage play all the time, but there is nothing wrong with trusting yourself on occasion to make a different choice. Golfer's minds work in mysterious ways when on the course, and you need to respond to the way you are thinking in order to perform at your best. The last thing you want to do is try to chip while still thinking about the choice you made with regard to the flag. Make the choice that is going to settle your mind so you can move on to hitting the shot.
In the grand scheme of things, the choice that you make with regard to the flag while chipping or pitching is not one that is going to come into play very often. Most of your chip shots are going to miss the hole, as chipping the ball into the cup is a challenging task to say the least. However, you are going to hit the hole on occasion, so you want to make the right choice as frequently as possible. Use the information provided above, along with your own instincts, to make a confidence decision before moving on to executing your chip shots perfectly time after time.