U.S. Open 2021

U.S. Open 2021: Why have there been so many nasty bounces off flagsticks at Torrey Pines?

June 19, 2021

Harry How

It’s been a rough couple days to be a flagstick at Torrey Pines. If you’ve watched this week’s U.S. Open, you’ve probably noticed ball after ball pinging off them. Rory McIlroy hit one on the fly (with a fairway wood!) on Saturday afternoon. Earlier in the day, Sergio Garcia nipped a perfect wedge that clanked off one and came right back to his feet. On Thursday, it was Phil Mickelson who hammered one.

On one hand, it’s to be expected. These are the best golfers in the world, after all. But the sheer number of flagstick strikes has been uncanny—and so have the resulting ricochets, which seem to be sending balls screaming in the other direction faster than normal.

So, is this a textbook case of recency bias, or is there something different about the flagsticks at the U.S. Open?

Turns out, it’s the latter, actually. Credit here to the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton, who investigated this in detail earlier this week. Turns out the flagsticks used at USGA events are indeed different than the ones used on the PGA Tour. They’re the same material—fiberglass—but the thickness is different. PGA Tour flagsticks are a uniform 1/2-inch in diameter from top to bottom, while the USGA’s are tapered: from 3/8 of an inch at the bottom to up to 3/4 of an inch at the top.

In summary: If a ball bounces off the bottom of the stick—like, on a putt—it would likely bounce less than had it knocked off a PGA Tour flagstick, since a thinner stick would theoretically produce a softer reaction. This is why you’re seeing guys who always putt with the flagstick in, like Matt Fitzpatrick, stick with that strategy this week. But if it bounces off the middle of the stick or higher, as McIlroy’s and Garcia’s and Mickelson’s did, good luck.

Just another obstacle for the fellas to deal with in “golf’s toughest test.” Actually, come to think of it, having to worry about how your ball will bounce off a flagstick would be a rather nice problem to have.