Is ‘backstopping’ cheating? Tour pros weigh in on the controversial practice

October 30, 2019

Backstopping has been a controversial practice on Tour. It happens when one player, either consciously or not, doesn’t mark their ball when on the green, allowing other players who aren’t already on the green an advantage if they were to hit the unmarked golf ball, which would play as a “backstop” to their ball.

This issue drew attention on Tour in June 2018 after a tweet from  Jimmy Walker. “Usually a guy will ask if he would like to mark it,” Walker said. “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.”

While the Rules of Golf prohibit assisting a competitor in such a manner, backstopping is a bit of a gray area where intent is of the utmost importance. In an innocent instance, the player who hits the unmarked ball gets to play his or her ball where it lies, while the player whose ball was hit is allowed to return his or her ball to its original location, and no penalty is assessed for either player.

The issue came up again in February of this year, when LPGA players Amy Olson and Ariya Jutanugarn fist-bumped after an instance of backstopping, in which Olson’s chip collided with Jutanugarn’s ball on the green. Olson’s ball ended up within two feet of the hole. Both players made their putts for birdie. Olson later said that Jutanugarn did not mark her ball because the group was trying to maintain pace of play. The two players were not penalized.

In this year’s edition of the GOLF.com Anonymous Pro Survey, which was conducted at September’s Safeway Open over two days, 52 players gave their unfettered takes on the hottest topics of the day, including Tiger, Trump, driver testing, Tour venues — and yes, even backstopping.

As it turns out, the majority of Tour players polled have a strong opinion on the subject. When asked whether they think backstopping is cheating, 61% said no, while 36% said yes. (Three percent said they were unsure.)

“It’s against the rules. Look it up,” said one player.

Other players’ answers alluded to that gray area.

“By the letter of the law, yes [it is cheating]. In my mind, no,” one said. “It’s not cheating, but you should protect the field,” added another.

Other players didn’t think it was a big deal.

“We’re not that good,” one said.

Added another pro, “Seen instances, but it’s blown out of proportion.”

A third said, “Only in rare circumstances. Everyone wants it to be fair.”

Among the anonymous respondents were 30 Tour winners, three major winners and 15 players who have made a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team. Curious about how the pros answered the other 40-odd questions we grilled them on? You can read the entire survey here.

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