Date: June 14, 2018
Author: Martin Blake

Backstopping: origins of a bunfight

It began with a tweet, sent in annoyance with a murky video shot from his television set and a mobile phone.

Former tour professional, writer, broadcaster and course architect Mike Clayton has been railing about the subject of ‘backstopping’ in golf for a while, and watching the US PGA Tour event from Memphis last weekend, he saw something that triggered him again.

‘Ben An and John Huh helping each other out here. What a joke,’ he wrote, attached the video, and pressed ‘post’.

Clayton had started a fire that is still burning. The video showed An chipping with Huh’s golf ball sitting just behind the hole, unmarked. Backstopping, at least on the surface of it. Not necessarily cheating, but enough to push Clayton to social media.

His tweet drew a quick response from Erin Walker, the wife of tour player Jimmy Walker. Then American Walker himself waded in, in the process outing himself as a backstopper.

To pause a moment, ‘backstopping’ is the moment when a player who has chipped or pitched on to the green, near or behind the flag, leaves his ball there rather than marking it, thus providing a potential advantage to a player about to hit his or her shot from a similar line.

If the incoming ball hits the stationary ball, it could stop that ball from running farther away. The other ball would be replaced where it originally laid, without penalty.

An and Huh had done it (although the balls did not collide, and there is no suggestion that they agreed to anything) and Jimmy Walker saw no problem in that. "Usually a guy will ask if he would like to mark it,’’ Walker wrote. “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."

Walker added that it was commonplace on the tour. "Lots of guys do it.’’

So in a few short words, he had confirmed what a lot of people had been feeling: that backstopping was creeping into the game, especially on the US Tour. 

The problem here is that under rule 22.1 of golf, it is illegal for players to collude over the marking of a ball to provide an advantage to one or the other. It reads: “In stroke play, if the Committee determines that competitors have agreed not to lift a ball that might assist any competitor, they are disqualified.’’

All of which started a huge debate in the world of golf, which is gathering at Shinnecock Hills this week for the US Open. The big websites have carried news of the kerfuffle, and many of the top players have been asked for their view. Clayton received a lot of support and some abuse; Walker copped plenty too, as is the way with social media.

Clayton said that if players were doing what Walker said they were doing, they would be breaking the rule. Lee Westwood, the English pro, jumped in too: “Mike Clayton is correct. The ball should be marked. A player has a responsibility to the rest of the field.’’

Curtis Strange, the world golf hall of famer, was direct: “Michael Clayton is right in every way here. You have to protect the field. Enough said.’’

Former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger was astounded at what was happening. “I don’t think you can be friendly enough, but there’s a decorum that needs to be followed,” he said. “It’s something the Tour should address. In our generation, the guy who chipped it up there, we didn’t have to tell him to mark that ball. He went up and marked it and we waited on him to mark it. That’s just how it was. It’s not right and we all know it’s not right.’’

The expression ‘protecting the field’ has been used a lot during the debate. What it means is that, by leaving a ball in play and potentially helping another player, it could harm the chances of another player in the field but not playing in that group. Perhaps cost him a victory, or send him/her outside the cutline, for instance.

It goes to the integrity of the contest, which is what Clayton was on about. “To me it almost doesn’t matter whether the balls collide. It’s the mentality to think it’s okay to help out the guy you’re playing with at the expense of the field.’’

Walker, at Shinnecock for the Open, was asked to explain his position. “I mean it happens all the time where you chip or pitch a ball up on the green and you ask the person who’s coming next if they’re pitching ‘do you want me to go mark that’?’’ he said. “That’s just the way it is. It happens, and a lot of times you leave it in the other player’s hands:’’

Jason Day was asked about it on Tuesday, and he is against it. "I'm not trying to help anyone. That's my competition. I'm nice to them, but I don't want to help them. We have 144 guys, 156 guys, every week. They're my competition. I need to beat them. I don't want to help them."

Golf Australia’s director of rules and handicapping, Simon Magdulski, told Inside the Ropes this week that he could not recall any disqualification for ‘backstopping’ in a major event. But Magdulski is aware of the issue as all the tours are.

 “I don’t believe they’re trying to cheat,’’ he said. “I think they believe they’re doing the right thing, that the etiquette of the game has changed amongst a few of these top players, that there’s a significant proportion of them believe the right thing to do is to leave the ball there, and if they don’t leave it there they’ll look poorly among their peers. And I think that’s a problem.’’

Clayton believes, like Azinger, that the big tours need to step in and speak to the players about the rule. “I’m not sure how any right-thinking player can think it’s okay. No one else in the history of the game thought it was okay. You didn’t see Bobby Jones do it or Ben Hogan do it, no one was doing it. It’s a cultural thing that’s inhabited American golf probably, more than in Europe.’’

Magdulski agrees: “Cultures can change and I think that’s what happened here. It used not to be a problem but it has become a problem. The players believe they’re doing the right thing. It needs to be explained to them, what the downside is.’’