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

What is backstopping in golf?

Backstopping is the when a player, deliberately or not, does not mark their ball when on the green.

The ball can then act as a ‘backstop’ for other players who are yet to play onto the green.

If a ball played onto the green hits another ball that is already on the green, the stationary ball will be replaced while the ball played onto the green can stay where it comes to a rest.

Neither player is penalised for ‘backstopping’.

What the rules say about backstopping in golf

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

In stroke play, under Rule 15.3a, if two or more players agree to leave a ball in place on the putting green to help any player, and the stroke is made with the helping ball left in place, each player who made the agreement gets two penalty strokes. A breach of Rule 15.3a does not depend on whether the players know that such an agreement is not allowed.

For example, in strokeplay, before playing from just off the putting green, a player asks another player to leave his or her ball that is near the hole, in order to use it 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 same outcome would apply if the player whose ball was near the hole offered to leave the ball in play to help the other player, and the other player accepted the offer and then played.

If the players know that they are not allowed to make such an agreement, but still do it, they are both disqualified under Rule 1.3b(1) for deliberately ignoring Rule 15.3a.

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:

R&A and USGA issue clarification on backstopping

In their clarifications to the Rules of Golf, updated in Jaunary 2020, the R&A and USGA took the view that backstopping “fails to take into account all of the other players in the competition and has the potential to give the player with the ‘backstop’ an advantage over those other players.”

“Consequently, The R&A and USGA offer players the following guidance and explanation of best practice:

“In stroke player, 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.”

So what do we think about backstopping in golf?

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