“Backstopping” is a term commonly heard in golf today, but what is backstopping exactly and what do the rules say about it?
Essentially it is the term used for when a player, in stroke play, instead of marking and removing the ball, leaves it on the field of play, usually in close proximity to the hole, to assist another player in lining up a shot.
When the balls collide the first person to play is able to replace theirs at the point at which it left the green, while the second player receives the advantage of their ball coming to rest close to the hole. Both competitors usually benefit from such an act.
Because of the accuracy required in taking advantage of the position of a dormant ball, this is typically more of an issue in professional golf than in leisure play, but it remains relevant across the board.
What Do the Rules Say About Backstopping?
The Rules of Golf do speak to the issue of backstopping, but if anything they are over-specific. Under Rule 22-1, players or partners are expressly forbidden to use their golf balls in order to assist each other. The penalty for breaching this rule is disqualification.
The rule states that in stroke play, if the committee determines that players have conspired to not lift a ball so as to confer advantage, they are to be excluded. The difficulty is that in order for the rule to take effect it is necessary to prove intent or prior knowledge, and in most cases this is simply not possible.
Those who defend the practice point in support of their argument to the time it takes to mark, remove and replace a ball on the unlikely off-chance that another player will be able to target it with such precision as to make it work for them. Just because a ball has been left upon the field of play it does not follow that it has been purposely backstopped.
Examples of the Backstop Influencing Play
The growing controversy over backstops was hardly helped by the candid statement made by PGA Tour player Jimmy Walker in 2018. In a post on Twitter, he remarked: “Usually a guy will ask if he would like to mark it. If you don’t like a guy you will mark anyway. If you like the guy you might leave it to help on a shot. Some guys don’t want to give help at all and rush to mark their ball. To each his own.”
Note that in spite of what would appear to be a public admission of the use of the backstop, the golf authorities would still seem reluctant to accept the need for a correct and consistent application of the rules.
In answer to this and to other defenses of the practice, the Australian pro golfer and golf architect Michael Clayton has publicly hit out at the encroachment of backstopping into the sport. This has included an open spat with Walker, who has been the main object of his criticism although he has also published videos of backstopping taking place amongst other competitors which serve to highlight the problem by example.
Is Backstopping Really a Problem?
Critics of backstopping such as Clayton point to the fact that it serves to bestow an unfair advantage upon those whom others choose to help, and conversely to disadvantage those who do not receive assistance in this way. Clearly it works against other players in a tournament.
Fears have also been expressed that a willingness to flout the rules on backstopping may be taken as a sign that there is a lack of integrity in the sport, which in turn runs the risk of sparking allegations of collusion and corruption.
Maybe everything would be so much easier if every player took the same view as English pro Luke Donald when he tweeted: “Every time I play an event, my goal is to shoot a lower score over 72 holes than everyone else playing, so why on earth would I intentionally help a fellow competitor by not marking my ball?”