Every now and then social media blows up about backstopping. So what is it and is it cheating?

What is backstopping in golf?

The R&A and USGA say ‘backstopping’ is the common term used to describe, in strokeplay, when a player – without agreement with any other – leaves their ball on the putting green in a position close to the hole where another player, who is about to play from off the green, might benefit if their ball struck the ball that was at rest.

Rule 15.3a requires there to be an agreement to leave the ball in place to help any player so there is no breach of the Rules.

What the rules say about backstopping in golf

Rule 15.3 covers a ball or ball-marker that’s either helping or interfering with play. It applies only to a ball that is at rest on the putting green – not elsewhere on the course.

If a player has a reasonable belief that a ball on the green might help the play of anyone, and the rules state that includes “such as serving as a possible backstop near the hole”, the player can mark and lift the ball or, if it belongs to another player, require them to mark and lift.

In strokeplay only, Rule 15.3a – Ball on Putting Green Helping Play – says that if two or more players agree to leave a ball in place to help a player, and if the player then makes a stroke with that “helping ball” left in place, then each player who made that agreement will get the general penalty. That’s a two-shot sanction.

15.3a/1: Breach of Rule for Leaving Helping Ball in Place Does Not Require Knowledge

There’s an interpretation to Rule 15.3a that sheds a bit more light on what would constitute a breach. It says it “does not depend on whether the players know that such an agreement is not allowed”.

The interpretation gives a helpful example, with a player in strokeplay, who is playing from just off the green, asks another player whose ball is near the hole to leave it there so it can serve as a backstop.

“Without knowing this is not allowed, the other player agrees to leave his or her ball by the hole to help the other player. Once the stroke is made with the ball in place, both players get the penalty under Rule 15.3a.”

The interpretation adds that the same outcome would happen if the player whose ball was close to the hole offered to leave it in place, to help the player off the green, and that player accepted the help and made a stroke.

R&A and USGA clarification on backstopping

In their quarterly clarifications and updates to the 2019 Rules of Golf, the game’s governing bodies – the R&A and USGA – clarified Rule 15.3 at the start of 2020, saying they took the view that ‘backstopping’ failed to take into account all the other players in an event and had “the potential to give the player with the ‘backstop’ an advantage over those other players”.

As a result, they offered the following guidance and explanation of best practice:

– In stroke play, the competition involves all players and, because each player in the competition cannot be present to protect his or her own interests, protecting the field is an important responsibility that all players in the competition share.

– Therefore, in stroke play, if there is a reasonable possibility that a player’s ball close to the hole could help another player who is about to play from off the green, both players should ensure that the player whose ball is close to the hole marks and lifts that ball before the other player plays.

– If all players follow this best practice, it ensures the protection of the interests of everyone in the competition. 

High-profile cases of backstopping in golf

In June 2018, Australian course architect Michael Clayton tweeted this incident involving Ben An and John Huh:

It sparked a debate that involved Jimmy Walker tweeting:

I try to help everyone. Especially if they got a bad break or got short sided. I’ve asked, “Do you want me to leave the ball?

Eddie Pepperell joked:

I also do the same as Jimmy. I sometimes take it further. I ask them if they’ve ever experienced ‘real’ adversity in their lives. If they have, I pop a few tees in the ground as well to act as another potential backstop. Being nice feeds the soul.

While Luke Donald was a bit more serious:

Then in February 2019 there was an incident involving Amy Olson and Ariya Jutanugarn. You can watch the incident here:

With Jutanugarn on the green, she gestured to Olson to ask if she wanted her to mark her ball. Olson, off camera, says it’s OK then chips her ball into Jutanugarn’s. The pair then fist bump in mock celebration.

So were they cheating? The LPGA say they weren’t, issuing this statement:

So what do we think about backstopping in golf?

It depends on your viewpoint. We’ve argued to the death about it here.

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