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Shackelford: Rise of ‘backstopping’ drives at integrity of golf

Golfweek logo Golfweek 2/22/2019 Geoff Shackelford

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Video by Golf Channel

Golf has an integrity problem and doesn't even know it.

Look at the blissful ignorance of fist-bumpers Amy Olson and Ariya Jutanugarn after colluding at the Honda LPGA Thailand.

Jutanugarn pitched close to the hole from just off the 18 th green, prepared to go mark or tap in, but looked at Olson. The world No. 1 put on the brakes upon getting a signal of some sort from Olson that she was ready to play with Jutanugarn's ball resting by the hole and she agreed to leave it there.

You know, because it's the last green and Olson's got things to do and places to be.

The balls collided and Olson's lousy chip went from 15-20 feet by, to 3 feet from the hole. Birdie.

As past backstopping incidents have all made clear, pro golfers are rarely in a hurry except when one of their peers leaves a shiny white ball somewhere around the hole. Then they turn into Lanny Wadkins. After all, they're just trying to grow the game by playing faster. When it suits their needs.

Olson's birdie off the back of Jutanugarn's ball allowed her to move within two strokes of the Honda LPGA Thailand lead. Jutanugarn is at -4 after 36 holes, seven back of leader Jenny Shin.

The incident is a breach of rule 15.3/1, where beefed up language in golf's new rules addressed backstopping with a two-stroke penalty option which, so far, has not been called in the Olson-Jutanugarn case.

The key language appears written for just the LPGA duo:

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 stroke play, 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.

There is also a clause for disqualification if the players knew this was a no-no, something any pro golfer should know by now.

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

The LPGA has not responded to Golfweek's request for comment or clarification as to whether the players might be penalized retroactively under Rule 15.3 The tour also took down a tweet celebrating the moment when a wiser soul pointed out this was not a celebratory moment.

But others preserved the video.

Backstopping exemplifies the most subtle and peculiar of efforts by professional golfers to circumvent the Rules of Golf and to be part of a mysterious club. Those who don't comply are outsiders.

The governing bodies, already with their backs to the wall after snafus in recent years and hiccups rolling out the new rules, have refused to make an example of a backstopper but at least provided the beefed up new rules language.

Why have the USGA and R&A, sensing the views of the tours that this is not a big deal, refused to call out this bro-culture behavior. Perhaps they don't want to be seen as uptight? Or maybe their leadership, made up of country club old boys network types, quietly relate to the clubby collusion seen in backstopping?

Roots at Riviera Country club

Backstopping started many years ago at Riviera Country Club's par-4 10th hole the tiny green had its fringes lowered and players found themselves playing from greenside bunker to bunker. Out of empathy or time concerns, PGA Tour players started leaving balls in the vicinity of, but never in front of the hole.

The practice eventually started happening on other holes with a few high-profile examples, most notably Tony Finau rushing to hit a buried lie bunker shot that successfully hit a ball, stopped closer to the hole and saved him a stroke that cost Chesson Hadley and Phil Mickelson six figures in the 2017 Safeway Open. The practice should have come to an end in June, 2018 when 2017 PGA Champion Jimmy Walker admitted to leaving his ball down as a backstop for players he likes and thinking nothing was untoward about that.

Sponsors have long been attracted to professional golfers because they are seen as the sporting world's most honorable athletes. They called penalties on themselves and act horrified if there was even a sense they escaped penalty for a violation. Professional athletes in other sports are expected to lie and whine when questioning a call. We snicker when they do. After all, they are trying to help the team win. But in golf, backstopping is the first practice that brings golf below other sports because it's an actual form of collusion with the competition greeted with a "mind your own business" attitude.

Corporations have paid handsomely to associate with golf's perception of integrity and class. So as backstoppers thumb their noses at the rules in the name of faster play-it would have taken Jutanugarn ten seconds to mark her ball-golfers risk creating a perception that not everything is on the up and up.

With legalized gambling around the corner, the willingness of tour executives to allow the behavior to continue has been mystifying. As more fans sort out the peculiar layers in backstopping and wonder why players are colluding when they are supposed to be competing, they may lose faith. In a short time, some may lose money over backstopping.

The day even a minority of fans think the fix is in and the players are working together instead of competing, they'll change the dial. The corporate dollars will go elsewhere if the competition seems perversely rigged. And all because a few people once refused to tell some pro golfers to cut it out and go mark their ball.

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