It's time golf gets rid of the gray in 'backstopping' and makes it a black-and-white issue
Last Friday, at the Honda LPGA Thailand, Ariya Jutanugarn and Amy Olson plunged the golf world into chaos with this one-minute sequence:
A casual golf fan could be forgiven for thinking that Olson’s ball hitting Jutanugarn’s and coming to a dead halt—leading to a birdie for Olson—was anything more than a piece of happy luck. For those naive souls, a group which apparently included the person running the LPGA’s social-media account, the reaction from certain fans and pundits quickly set them right. This was far more than simple fortune, according to the indignant set. This was a phenomenon known as “backstopping,” in which the first player to hit from around the green leaves her ball unmarked as a potential aid to the second. In theory, this provides an unfair benefit, and Olson’s shot was the theory made manifest, since clearly, without a backboard, her ball would have run well past the hole and significantly decreased her odds of making birdie.
But was it backstopping, really? To answer that question, you have to answer another, and I’ll warn you now that it will drag us into some very annoying but also very necessary semantics: Does backstopping as a concept involve intentionality?
And if the answer to that question is yes, you have to ask a few more, such as:
1. Did Ariya Jutanugarn know what she was doing when she did not mark her ball?
2. Did Amy Olson also understand what has happening when she seemed to signal to Jutanugarn not to mark her ball?
3. Did their post-shot fist bump provide proof of collusion?
My immediate reaction, and the one that lingers, is that Olson, at least, was blissfully ignorant of the implications. I buy her explanation that the fist bump was a mix of innocuous camaraderie, surprise and amusement, and I feel bad for her:
Of course, now I might be the one showing my naiveté. These are, after all, professional golfers. They’ve been playing for most of their lives, and it’s not unreasonable to think that they’ve encountered this situation multiple times in the past and are well aware of the underlying significance. Most of them, you’d guess, likely have strong opinions on the subject. Just last summer, after Byeong-Hun An and John Huh seemed to commit the backstopping sin on the PGA Tour, Jimmy Walker weighed in on the etiquette of the backstop and outed himself as sympathetic to the practice:
What Walker describes here, which is verbal collusion for the purpose of backstopping, is technically prohibited under the 2019 Rules of Golf. Here’s Rule 15.3a:
“If two or more players agree to leave a ball in place to help any player, and that player then makes a stroke with the helping ball left in place, each player who made the agreement gets the general penalty (two penalty strokes).”
That said, this kind of outright agreement between players is rare, and most instances of backstopping involve tacit cooperation, or circumstances in which one or both parties are unaware or unconscious of the potential impropriety. What Jutanugarn and Olson did, for example, is not illegal, because even if we think there was “agreement” about leaving the ball in place based on their respective gestures, there’s no way to know whether this agreement was meant to “help another player,” since no words to that effect were exchanged.
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Back to the annoying semantics: In this sense, going strictly by the book, the very concept of “backstopping” has to be judged by intent, and it has to be judged by overt, stated intent, rather than the kind of mind-reading that occurred in the aftermath of Friday’s incident. “Do it silently,” the rule book essentially says, “and we’ll all look the other way.”
Which is, of course, a glaring problem not just for the abstract concept of fair play, but for vulnerable players such as Olson who get blindsided by controversy. In the absence of a concrete rule, the USGA leaves its players unprotected and opens their motivations to widespread scrutiny. As we saw with Olson, that scrutiny can be vicious, and lead to personal stress and a reputational hit that—if you believe her version, as I do—is entirely undeserved.
It’s long past time to kill the question of intent. Let’s boil the debate down to its simplest form and ask two very basic question:
1. Does backstopping confer a potential advantage?
Yes, clearly. Which leads to:
2. Should the USGA therefore make a much clearer rule to prevent it?
Of course! In fact, it’s really wild that there’s no clearer rule currently in existence. This is a sport with incredibly precise rules accounting for every possible bizarre situation that might occur, to the point that not even touring professionals have a comprehensive grasp of every bylaw. It can get truly byzantine—if you hit near a nest of rattlesnakes, you can take free relief, but if your ball lands in the branches of a tree above a nest of rattlesnakes, you’re out of luck because the tree condition supersedes the dangerous animal condition. Or, what if you have the brilliant idea of having a putting specialist caddie that joins you only on the greens, while another caddie guides you from tee to green? Sorry, they thought of that too—no temporary switches allowed. I could go on, and on, and on, because there are 156 pages of this stuff. Hell, we’ve spent the beginning of this year talking endlessly about flagsticks and drops from knee height—there’s something for everything.
So how in the world does it make sense to leave backstopping up to the players? How has the USGA not covered this to the last detail? It’s a little bit like watching a hoarder casually dump a box of old magazines on the curb—it’s against their nature!
Even if backstopping has never decided the winner of a tournament, every stroke means money, and every dollar that goes in the pocket of one player means a dollar not going in the pocket of another. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and nobody should be punished or rewarded because of the temperament of his playing partner.
Establishing a rule would be very easy, and the only tricky part would come in deciding the parameters. When is it reasonable to require players around the green to mark their ball without unduly slowing down the action? Anywhere within 30 feet of the green, if the ball stops within 10 feet of the hole? Smarter people than me can decide how it should work, and while it may involve some head-scratching, at least it becomes a question of logistics. Figuring that out, whatever the complications, is eminently preferable to turning a blind eye. Allowing a dubious practice like backstopping to continue is a small but significant example of institutional cowardice, and as Olson and Jutanugarn found out last Friday, it hurts the players—guilty and innocent alike.