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backstopping

Is backstopping actually against the Rules of Golf?

It’s a thorny subject that rears its ugly head regularly – but is it illegal or just morally questionable? Steve Carroll guides you through this minefield

 

It’s just so tempting. Someone’s just played their shot, their ball could give you a helping hand, and you just want to keep it there. What a guide it would be, and it would probably give you more of a chance of pulling off something special.

This situation I received by email pops up time and again, and I’ve seen it myself out on the course. Let’s set the scene…

You are off the green and about to putt from the fringe. Your playing partner chips their ball on and it lands and stops six inches behind the hole. Are you allowed to ask them to leave the ball there as it could help, or are you going to be picking up a penalty if you do?

To backstop or not to backstop, that is the question. So let’s see if we can give you a definitive answer to the backstopping golf rule…

What is the backstopping golf rule?

Backstopping

Firstly, what is backstopping? It’s described in the Official Guide to the Rules of Golf in the following way and it’s worth quoting in full:

“A player, without agreement with any other player, leaves their ball in place on the putting green close to the hole in a position where another player, who is about to play from off the putting green, could benefit if their ball struck the ball at rest”.

So now we’re clear on that, is it against the rules and what can you do about it on the course?

There is actually a whole section in the Rule Book on what to do when a ball or ball-marker is helping or interfering with play on various parts of the course.

We’re going to deal with Rule 15.3a which considers when it is a ball on the putting green.

It says if a player “reasonably believes” that a ball on the putting surface might help anyone’s play – and the language the rule uses includes “such as serving as a possible backstop near the hole” – then the player may mark the spot of the ball and lift it, or if it belongs to another player “require the other player to mark the spot and lift the ball”.

Such a request cannot be refused – the clue is in the word “require” – and it’s the general penalty (two shots or loss of hole in match play) for those who don’t.

If that demand isn’t forthcoming, things get a bit murkier and what happens next can depend on whether you’re playing match play or stroke play.

In match play, a clarification to Rule 15.3a says a player can agree to leave their ball in place to help an opponent since the “outcome of any benefit that may come from the agreement affects only their match”.

In stroke play, if two or more players agree to leave a ball in place on the putting green to help any player, “and that player then makes a stroke with the helping ball left in place”, EACH player who made that agreement gets two penalty strokes.

Ignorance of the rules cannot serve as an excuse.

Another clarification to Rule 15.3a says if an agreement is made, it doesn’t matter if the players aren’t aware it’s not allowed. A penalty still applies.

But it’s the agreement that is the key part. Without it, there is no breach of the rules – even if it constitutes backstopping.

Even so, the R&A and USGA have issued some guidance and best practice for committees to try and prevent backstopping in stroke play.

The governing bodies believe the practice doesn’t take account of the rest of the field and has the “potential to give the player with the ‘backstop’ an advantage over those other players”.

What do they suggest you do in your rounds? To help protect the field, they say 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”.

So, in short, don’t do it.

Got a question for our expert?

Despite the changes to the Rules of Golf in 2019 and 2023, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. I’ll try to help by featuring the best of your queries in this column.

What do you think about the backstopping golf rule? Let me know with a tweet.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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