Recently I had the rare opportunity to spend some time with one of the most iconic figures in golf—the flagstick at the 18th hole of the Augusta National Golf Club. With the Masters approaching, and at a decidedly turbulent time in the life of all flagsticks, he was extremely gracious with his time and remarkably revealing with his views on a variety of issues.
GP: This is such a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me.
F: The pleasure’s all mine—I can’t remember the last time anyone wanted to chat with me.
GP: Well, let’s start by learning a bit more about you. Flagstick—that’s an Anglo-Saxon name, isn’t it?
F: Well yes, but my family is actually of Eastern European descent—originally we were all Poles.
GP: Oh, of course. But eventually you found your way to the UK…
F: Yes, my direct ancestors were of sturdy Scottish timber, real Bravehart types. Oh the stories my great-grandfather told about his 16-hour workdays, often in the worst weather. The heavy winds eventually forced him into early retirement.
GP: I’m sorry if this next question is a bit, uh, delicate. Are you male or female?
F: Are you really that naïve? Think about it, my friend—the logistics. I’m male. All flagsticks are male, and happily married to their cups!
GP: Right, of course. Let’s get to your job, working the 18th hole at the Augusta National Golf Club, arguably the most famous course in the world. How does that feel?
F: Well, naturally it’s a great honor. I was very fortunate to have been born and raised near here. It’s a wonderful place to work. The members are all gentlemen, and the best part is that they close down the course in May—I get the whole summer off, just like a schoolteacher.
GP: I’m assuming there’s some sort of hierarchy among the pins…
F: Don’t call me a pin. Pins are for bowling. It’s flagstick or stick.
GP: My bad, sorry. Did you have to work your way up to become the 18th hole flagstick?
F: Yes, there is a strict pecking order here, as you’d imagine, and I am indeed senior stick, but it’s not a straight 1–18 thing. The entry position is the 5th hole, mostly because it’s isolated on a hill at the far end of the course. Also, it’s a tough hole, so by the time most players hike up there and putt out they’re in a sour mood. Most of the sticks like working Amen Corner, especially on hot days, because it’s generally shady and there’s always a nice breeze down there, but the second most prestigious hole is 16. It’s such an idyllic setting, plus you see some very entertaining shots, including the occasional hole-in-one. And of course, during Masters week you get a lot of close-ups. I worked there for several years before coming here. In fact, remember the famous Tiger pitch shot in 2005?
GP: The one where the ball sat on the edge of the cup for a few seconds and then toppled in…wow, that was you?
F: Yep, that was my 15 minutes of fame. It was particularly sweet because 30 years earlier my Dad was working that hole when Jack Nicklaus sank a dramatic 40-footer en route to victory in his fifth Masters.
GP: Speaking of attention, thanks to the new Rules change you must be getting more of that than ever.
F: Yes, and it’s the best of both worlds—more people are looking at me and fewer are touching me! It’s not perfect, mind you. Occasionally, some yahoo overhits a putt that slams me in the shins. But I’m not getting manhandled the way I was all my life. Heck, some days I’ll stand there watching several groups pass through before anyone lays a hand on me, and that’s usually an arthritic member whose grip I can barely feel. What a change after being constantly picked up and put down, passed from caddie to caddie, and occasionally dropped on the ground. Would you like that? I HATE being dropped. Now, everyone’s just looking at me—and I mean really looking at me for the first time. It’s wonderful.
GP: Yeah, back in the old days, I guess it was much tougher being a flagstick.
F: Ohmygod, it was so crazy. Did you know that back in 1952 the Rule was that a stick had to be removed for any shot within 20 yards of the hole, otherwise the player got a two-stroke penalty?
GP: No way…even for bunker shots?
F: For any shot. My grandfather worked the 13th here for years and he loved regaling us with tales of guys who holed shots from the tributary of Rae’s Creek—out of the water and into the cup—but because no one had removed grampa from the hole, the player got tagged two strokes.
F: Tell me about it. Then for the last 50 years until this year we had that ridiculous rule where you had to take me out for every putt or the penalty was two strokes—what a crazy half century of baton ballet that produced, and such a waste of time! Thank heavens, it’s over.
GP: I think you’re being a little self-serving there, but I must say I agree with you. Now, let’s get to your big upcoming week, the Masters. Are you excited?
F: Of course, but honestly, Masters Week is a mixed blessing. Again, I love the attention but I think my 17 colleagues would agree, we get hit—and hit hard—with golf balls more often on Masters Week than any week of the year. It’s always been that way. My grandfather dreaded the approach of Ben Hogan, and my dad cringed anytime Johnny Miller stared at him with an iron in hand.
GP: What has been your own worst moment?
F: April 11, 2011. Luke Donald. In contention on Sunday, he hit me twice in succession, the first with a shot from the fairway that caught me flush in the midsection. I think he was actually aiming at my groin, but I managed to hip-check him back down the fairway. What does the limey slime do but hit me again, holing his pitch shot! The crowd loved it. Yours truly, not so much. I ached for days.
GP: Is there a Masters hole location on your green that you look forward to every year?
F: Yes, back right. For one thing, the players tend not to gun for me there, lest they overshoot the green. But the main reason is that I’m closer to the edge of the green and can eavesdrop on the gallery.
F: Yes, I’m afraid I’m something of a busybody. That’s the only thing I miss about the days when the caddies held me at the side of green. I loved listening in on their salty critiques of the players. These days, I’m relegated to watching and listening mostly to the spectators, and sadly the Masters patrons are way too genteel for me.
GP: So, who are your favorite players?
F: Bryson DeChambeau and Adam Scott, for obvious reasons. I so hope one of them wins this year. You know, I’ve never been on camera at the moment the victorous putt dropped.
GP: Is there anything you’re not looking forward to?
F: Yes, the Champion’s caddie on Sunday night. In the past, caddies have tried to take my flag away as a souvenir. Humans just don’t understand, the flag is our hair—when it wafts in the breeze it attracts attention to us and we feel good and proud, and that’s especially true for the bright yellow Masters flag. When it’s ripped away from us, it’s like a public scalping—suddenly we’re bald, cold, an object of ridicule. At moments like that I wish I worked at Merion.