Rulebook: You Scratch My Back… Backstopping – What Is It?

w/ Rich McLean, Golf Canada Rules Official @lobwedge 

Backstopping, or in more technical terms – the use of one player’s ball on the green left in a position to assist the play of another player – is in its current context a fairly new development that has found some traction in recent months by those of us who both follow and report on professional golf. However, from a rules perspective, the concept of one player’s ball on the green assisting another’s play has been around for at least 60 years, and has had a penalty statement attached to it since 1984. In other words, the idea of “backstopping” is not a new one.

Let’s jump ahead to 2019. Rule 15.3 tells us that if a player reasonably believes that a ball on the putting green might help anyone’s play (such as by serving as a possible backstop near the hole), the player may mark their ball and lift it, or if the ball belongs to another player, ask them to mark and lift. Two key things here: 1) the player has to be reasonable in their assessment of the situation, and 2) the player is not required to mark and lift their ball. It’s ultimately the player’s call.

Now, this is where we get to the root of the backstopping debate. A further clarification within the rule, that applies in stroke play only, tells us that where two or more players have an agreement to leave a ball in place to assist another player AND that player subsequently makes a stroke with said ball left in place, then all of the players involved in the agreement each receive a two stroke penalty. Seems pretty straightforward… except for the part about proving it.

There are any number of ideas that lend support to the theory of backstopping, and an equal number that speak against it.

The Angel on One Shoulder

The sharpest arrow in the quiver against backstopping is the expectation that players are to conduct themselves with honour and abide by the rules of the game. While some think this notion to be naïve and out-of-date in today’s world of high stakes professional golf, everyone who has picked up a golf club in the history of the world is aware that this principle is written in stone. I would further argue that, especially in today’s insta-tweet world, it is more important than ever for professional golfers to conduct themselves accordingly. We’ve all seen firsthand what happens when they don’t. That’s a pretty big yoke to tote. On the other hand…

And The Devil on The Other

Those of us that follow the game closely also realize that professional prize money has grown almost exponentially over the last 30-40 years, and one can imagine that the urge to “hook a brother or sister up” has crossed a few minds more than once. I get it. We’re only human. But again, I refer to the large microscope under which professionals play. It would take a very large set of… nerves to pull something like this off. Not to mention the fact that there must be an actual agreement in place between players in order to get it off the ground in the first place. That’s a huge ask considering the consequences.

Moving Right Along

Another consideration is pace of play. Sometimes it’s just not practical for one player to walk a significant distance to mark and lift their ball while the next player waits. And we all know what a big deal pace of play is already in professional golf, right? I’m certain we’ve all discussed the subject a few thousand times. I digress…

At the very least, backstopping is a hotly debated issue that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. A great 19th hole debate for sure. But you can bet that if we’re talking about it, then so are both the governing bodies and the associated professional tours of the world. If there’s more to be said about this from an official level, it will be said. Or, on the other hand, they may decide it warrants no further scrutiny. We’ll have to wait and see.