Tour Confidential: Is ‘backstopping’ a legit problem on Tour? (Plus, previewing the U.S. Open!)

June 11, 2018

Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors in Tour Confidential. Join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. The “backstopping” debate flared up again over the weekend. (Backstopping is the term used when players — consciously or not — don’t mark their balls on the green, which gives other players a small advantage should their balls strike the unmarked ball; the player who didn’t mark can move his or her ball back.) Jimmy Walker said via Twitter on Saturday that “if you don’t like a guy you will mark anyway. If you like the guy you might leave it to help on a shot. Some guys don’t want to give help at all and rush to mark their ball. To each his own.” … “I try to help everyone,” Walker continued, replying to others. “Especially if they got a bad break or got short sided. I’ve asked ‘Do you want me to leave the ball?'” But per the Rules of Golf (Rule 22-1, to be exact), the act of backstopping is illegal. Did Walker just unwittingly admit to violating the Rules?

Sean Zak, associate editor (@sean_zak): Yep and each excuse he used seemed to get weaker and weaker, especially the one in which he acts that way when another player “got a bad break.”

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): It’s a crazy issue. With all the attention being paid to it I would think at this point guys would avoid any controversy and just mark the ball. I look at it like this: pretend you’re playing match play. Would you mark your ball in match play? If the answer is yes, then do it in stroke play as well.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@Jeff_Ritter): John, it’s interesting that you believe the issue is getting a lot of attention with the pros. I wasn’t sure if it had made it to the locker room, or if it was confined to social media and the occasional TV taking head. Clearly some guys aren’t aware of the rule, or have simply adopted their own sort of “buddy code.” Either way, now is probably a good time to wipe the practice out of the game.

MORE: Join’s U.S. Open Pool: Win a trip to New York City and new set of fitted clubs!

Josh Berhow, news editor (@Josh_Berhow): It sure seems like it. I’d love to find out what other pros think of Jimmy so openly spreading this narrative. If they agree, disagree, or are annoyed he let the cat out of the bag.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@dylan_dethier): I think they’d be annoyed that he said so explicitly what nobody else had any interest in admitting. It sounds like sort of a subconscious decision that pros make — not anymore!

Josh Sens, contributing writer (@JoshSens): Twitter is mostly a contaminant in our culture but every now and then it delivers a refreshing dose of truth serum into the public conversation. It’s interesting what people will say when they’re alone with their thoughts and on a mobile device.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: This thing is about more than the small chance you might help the other guy. It’s about the spirit by which you would want to help the other guy so (unspoken) he will help you some other time. That’s not tournament golf.

Jessica Marksbury, senior editor (@Jess_Marksbury): The idea of leaving a ball unmarked to potentially “help” another player is so bizarre. Mark the ball, guys! Hard to believe this is even an issue, really.

2. Is there any way for officials to enforce backstopping in professional golf, or is there too much gray area where players can get around the rules? What, if anything, needs to change?

Zak: The mindset needs to change. If something is “against the rules,” then players shouldn’t be doing it, no matter if they’re playing with their buddy or someone they hate. Officials on course could use their judgement, and an egregious act could suffice enforcement. The problem with that is the penalty (DQ) is too severe.

Missy Jones, rules official and USGA committee member (@missyjonjones): Peer pressure is the way to go with this but aside from that we have a Decision that says a referee can step in. This would be an extreme case of babysitting, but Decision 22/7 says a referee would be justified in intervening and requesting the competitor to invoke the Rule to protect himself and the rest of the field. If the competitor objected it would be pretty good evidence of an agreement to collude and assist, meaning a DQ if they refuse. That said, the guys on Tour need to be told from above that it doesn’t look good and needs to stop. And the reason the penalty is so severe is because if they are really agreeing to do this — they are cheating. Cheaters get DQ’d.

Wood: Again, pretend it’s ALL match play. It would be difficult for an official to step in, as it’s kind of calling someone’s honor into question.

Jones: Agreed but if a referee sees a pattern, it is worth an ask. “What are you doing here? Why do you never go up and mark when you have time to do so?”

Bamberger: Exactly, John. More your ball. Your money is at stake.

Ritter: I like this. A match-play mentality within groupings would take care of the glaring violations and most of the iffy ones.

Berhow: With golf, there’s always going to be a gray area. In a way it’s hard to blame a fast player for playing from just off the green if they are ready while another player, for whatever reason, is still lollygagging up to the green. But it’s another thing if the person has a chance to mark and doesn’t. It’s on the players. There are no assists in golf.

Jones: My experience is there is plenty of time for players to get up there and mark before a player hits. If a player is quick and you can’t get there sometimes that is OK, but the default should be to mark — not the other way around.

Dethier: Seconding Berhow here — this is all gray area. If it’s sort of intentional but not really intentional, is that really a DQ-able offense? I don’t think so. But these last 24 hours (plus certain segments of Golf Twitter, for longer) have brought this to the forefront of players’ minds. They’ll start handling each case with more purpose now.

Sens: Thirding Berhow and seconding Dethier. In the case Josh cites, you start getting into the vagaries of intent. And how do you legislate that? Maybe it just has to be viewed the way Potter Stewart looked at obscenity: you know it when you see it.

Marksbury: Common sense should prevail. If it’s your turn to play, and an unmarked ball is potentially in your line of play on the green, you should ask for a mark. And if you’re on the green while another player is off, mark! We all know there’s plenty of time out there, especially at the professional level.

3. The 118th U.S. Open is upon us, as the game’s best head to Shinnecock Hills on Long Island. Give us your winner.

Berhow: I never would have said this a year ago, because I never thought he had the big-spot closing ability on Sunday afternoons, but Rickie Fowler’s bogeyless, four-under back nine on Sunday at Augusta National was the proof I needed for convincing. He’s been playing well this year, he’s simply too good not to have a major and he just seems like the perfect fit for a Shinnecock/Long Island major champ. He wins come Sunday.

Zak: I agree, Josh — Rickie is gonna get it done one of these days — just not this week. The safest pick is Justin Thomas, whose floor is higher than every other player in the world. His one missed cut this year came when he had a teammate in NOLA. Every single other event he’s played in has been a top 25. Meanwhile, Rickie, Rory, DJ and other heavyweights have all taken their bumps and bruises at times this year. JT’s bad golf is still so damn good.

Berhow: JT is a safe pick, sure, but the safest pick? That’s Justin Rose. He’s won in the last month, hasn’t missed a cut all year and has nine top 25s in his 11 events played.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@Alan_Shipnuck): You beat me to it – Rose has always been my pick. Shinny is a quintessential second-shot course and Rose is the game’s preeminent iron player. He needs one more glittering win to punctuate a Hall-of-Fame career and I think he gets it in Jay Gatsby’s hood.

Sens: Speaking of Gatsby, in my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me a piece of advice that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. He said, ‘Never chose the obvious guy to win a golf tournament.’ Sorry, pops. But I like Rose as well. For all the reasons Alan cites above.

Bamberger: Gatsby lived on the North Shore of the L.I. gold coast, in Nassau County, where the betting term Nassau was invented, so that no gent would have to lose by more than 3-0.

Dethier: Not obvious — gimme Henrik Stenson!

Bamberger: Dustin Johnson. Bomb it anywhere, wedge it, make enough of ‘em. Like Daly did to the Old Course.

Joe Passov, travel editor (@joepassov): You serious journalist-types seem to be going where the facts take you. OK. I’m going for raw emotion, and a Phil Mickelson win. Why not? He’s playing great this year, and he has a better record at Shinnecock than anyone in the field. Lefty finally gets his U.S. Open win.

Sens: Phunny you mention Phil, Joe. I was actually going to pick him as the player most likely to disappoint. Not that expectations surrounding him are exactly at a fever-pitch right now. But his history of U.S. Open heartache always gets rehashed plenty this time of year. Lots of good reasons to root for him. But I think anyone pinning their hopes on Mickelson completing the career Grand Slam is in for a letdown.

Ritter: Here I am checking in late and no one has mentioned the guy who’s actually going to win it: Jason Day. With two titles under his belt this season, he’s healthy and locked in. Oh, and he’s still hitting it a mile and leads the Tour in putting. Shinny looks like a good spot for career major No. 2.

Marksbury: I’m joining Alan and Josh on this one. Justin Rose is my pick to win. But this late-breaking engagement news with Rickie, who proposed to girlfriend Allison Stokke on Saturday, has me thinking…could there be a bit of a Sergio effect here? Garcia admitted that being with Angela and the support of her family helped elevate his game. Is it crazy to think that impending marital bliss might help lead Rickie to his first major title this week? Hmmmm….

Sens: That’s possible, Jess. As a counter argument, though, I’ve been married 20 years and still haven’t won a major, so there are limits to the power of conjugal bliss.

Berhow: Let the record show I picked Rick before the engagement hoopla. Maybe that matters for him down the road, but this week, I don’t think it’s on the radar. But still, congrats! (Need a groomsman?!)

Wood: Well, after what I just saw, I’ll go with Dustin Johnson. Shinnecock is one of my favorite courses in the world, but I’ve been here for two days now and I’m kind of in shock at the size of the fairways. Yes, the rough is brutal, but there are quite a few 40-, 50-, 60-yard-wide fairways. It’s hard to think someone who drives it as good as he does and who can hit a nine-iron 170 yards to make it stop on firm greens when he needs to won’t be there at the end.

Dethier: As is true every time he wins, DJ just made it look like nobody else in the field should have bothered showing up. Still, I’ll take Stenson, whose ball-striking remains at the top of the game and will contend with a solid showing around Shinny’s slippery greens.

4. Which big name is bound to disappoint?

Berhow: Jordan Spieth hasn’t had a top 20 since the Masters, and his misses on shorties are becoming a trend. I don’t see him getting it together and changing that storyline this week.

Zak: I’m with you on Spieth. He just doesn’t seem capable of shooting a bogey-free round these days. I think Tiger will disappoint. That’s only a relative term for the Big Cat, because the last Open he played in (at Chambers Bay) he was absolutely dreadful. Tiger’s Saturday rounds have been electric, but only because he’s rallied on Fridays to make the cut. Recall the multiple times he’s come back late in the second round to make the cut on the number or one shot clear. I think his Friday run (or luck?) peters out in the Hamptons.

Shipnuck: I don’t know, Tiger has already parked his yacht in the Hamptons – that power move puts him a couple of shots up on the field before play even begins.

Bamberger: I disagree. How many majors has he won out of his yacht? I fear he’s the early leader in this odd category that leaves me uncomfortable, but only because he’s the biggest of the bigs.

Passov: Sergio Garcia has entered the witness protection program since March, with four MCs and a 70th in his past five PGA Tour events. He’s usually solid in U.S. Opens, with a T18 in 2015, T5 in 2016 and T21 in 2017, but for 2018, I’m not forecasting anything good.

Sens: See above regarding Phil. And since he and Tiger are now chummy, maybe they can sunbathe together on that yacht. I won’t be surprised to see Tiger have the weekend off.

Dethier: I’m with Sens on Phil. Adored by the fans and in desperate need of a U.S. Open to complete the Grand Slam and secure his legacy? That’s a lot of pressure as he heads out to Long Island.

Ritter: If Tiger does anything less than win, is it a disappointment? I think he’ll play well, but this isn’t the week he ends a 10-year major drought. But like Berhow and Zak, I have a bad feeling about Spieth. His short putting gives me the heebie-jeebies. A U.S. Open is the worst place to be when you don’t have mojo on the greens.

Sens: The heebie-jeebies are a terrible thing in someone so young. I’m referring to you, Jeff, but the same applies to Spieth. Just as a great putter is a match for anyone, a shabby putter wins no majors. Let’s hope he gets that flatstick sorted soon.

Marksbury: Hard to top these picks, but I’ll add Rory and Adam Scott to the “questionable putting” conversation. Shinnecock’s greens have a treacherous reputation, and anyone who isn’t rock solid on putts from three feet and in will likely suffer greatly this week.

Wood: I honestly have no idea which big name will disappoint. What will disappoint me is if the big story on Sunday is the name of a rules official or USGA member involved in course setup.

5. Speaking of course setup, in preparation for the Open, the USGA added length and narrowed some of the fairways at Shinnecock Hills. Do you see the blue coats tightening the screws on this setup to ensure the leaderboards don’t bleed red again like they did at Erin Hills?

Zak: I imagine they’ve done about everything they can do up to this point. A.k.a. we won’t see the Monday hacking of rough like we saw at Erin Hills. With rain expected for Wednesday, I’d imagine Thursday could provide the best scoring conditions. Hopefully those blue coats don’t get spooked.

Wood: Again, I see no evidence of narrowed fairways. Maybe there are a couple, but comparing my 2004 yardage book to my 2018 yardage book, the holes are certainly longer, but the fairway lines are more generous. Without big winds or tricked-up greens, I see another U.S. Open where you will have to be well under par to win. Once a year, I see no problem with a fear-based golf tournament. A 100 percent gut check.

Berhow: I think Shinnecock is a perfect test because it’s already going to play difficult. So I don’t think much needs to be done. Just like Rory said last week — there’s no need to overthink it. A good, tough golf course will produce the winner and winning score it deserves. If it’s a few strokes higher or lower than expected, oh well. You can’t play God.

Dethier: I’m on board with Josh (and Rory, by proxy) in thinking they should set it up tough and see what happens. No need to target a specific score — trust that Shinny has enough defenses on its own to make a compelling tournament.

Passov: John, you’re correct in noting that the 2018 Shinny fairways are actually wider than they were in 2004. However, they’re narrowed from a year ago, from where the USGA had intended them to be, almost certainly in response to Erin Hills’ defenseless challenge. After Chambers Bay and Erin Hills, there’s a good deal of sentiment to return to tighter, more traditional U.S. Open setups. A pity perhaps, given all the fun renewed emphasis in design on width, angles and options, but understandable. Even par is supposed to mean something in U.S. Opens, and the brass is looking to recapture that.

Sens: Who am I to argue with a professional caddie and a golf architecture expert? If Wood and Passov say the fairways are wider, I believe them. Just as I trust that the scoreboards will bleed an unfortunate shade of red.

Ritter: I think many of the USGA’s problems came from experimenting with new venues. They tinkered with setups at Erin Hills and Chambers and never quite cracked it. Shinny is a known quantity. The forecast calls for mild temps. If the wind doesn’t blow under par will win, but I really don’t expect the setup to be a major part of the story this time around.

Bamberger: The USGA, not matter what it claims — its leadership may not even know that it is doing it — defends par. I see at least 36 nasty pins, because it is the most obvious line of defense.

Marksbury: Having just returned from the U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek (where nearly five inches of rain fell on the course in the days preceding the beginning of the championship, and the final score was well into the double digits), I think we’re past the point of expecting a U.S. Open to be won at even par. We’ll be entertained regardless.

MORE: Join’s U.S. Open Pool: Win a trip to New York City and new set of fitted clubs!

6. After two much-questioned Open setups (at Chambers Bay in 2015 and Erin Hills in 2017, and the DJ rules debacle sandwiched in between) how important is it that the USGA gets this Shinnecock Open “right”?

Zak: Considering the rampant complaining from players after each of those events, it’s probably most important that the winning score is not over par. That’s not what these guys are used to, and if we know this Tour as well as we think we might, something that resembles what they’re used to will keep them from spouting off about the USGA.

Wood: Funny. Growing up watching U.S. Opens, every time someone made a par, it felt like a victory, a triumphant moment. You could almost see the guts on the faces of Curtis Strange or Tom Kite or Corey Pavin or Scott Simpson or Payne Stewart or Ray Floyd after securing another hole without a + by their score. It seems like it’s gone the other way, Oakmont being a recent holdout. I don’t know if a player like those listed above can win a U.S. Open these days.

Berhow: The DJ rules thing was bad, but I don’t think a course allowing a few more birdies than they like is necessarily an F, either. (Oh, but no unplayable greens like 2004!)

Ritter: Right, Josh. Just don’t botch the greens again and everything else should be fine.

Sens: How are we defining “right”? To my mind, certain players complaining is not necessarily a sign that the USGA got it “wrong.” Plenty of players have groused about the setups at tournaments that many of us look back on as successes.

Dethier: Let’s not let the Tour groupthink overwhelm us. As one example, Chambers Bay was, in my mind, a fantastic U.S. Open, but history has basically reduced it to “that weird course with the bad greens” because of a handful of player complaints. Set up the course, let what happens happen, and then stick to your guns.

Passov: From the day the USGA first decided to come back to Shinnecock, in 1986, they fretted about how the old course would hold up to the bombers. Even with a 29 or some 65s here and there, it has held up beautifully — provided the wind blows in typical fashion. They still fret, but now Shinny has a few more defenses — 500 yards have been added, trees are gone to allow the wind to have maximum effect. Getting it “right” is relative. When Ogilvy won at Winged Foot in 2006 with five over, no one complained about the setup. Nor was there any whining the next year at Oakmont, when Cabrera also won with five over. Both were tough, but fair. It’s when things get unfair that gets folks howling.

Bamberger: This is a major major for the USGA. The British Open is on the rise. Our Open is ill-defined at the moment. It cannot be.

Marksbury: Shinnecock in June, with the best players in the world peaking at the right time, should be a complete and utter slam dunk. I’m not worried.

7.Who has the better finish at Shinny: Tiger or Phil?

Zak: Phil, though this feels like an undercard match.

Wood: Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if we got the matchup we’ve been dying to see for, oh, 20 years or so? Phil and Tiger sign their scorecards Sunday afternoon, and they’re tied for the lead. Boy oh boy, cannot wait for that 18-hole playoff on Monday to decide it all! Oh, wait, you say it’s now a two-hole playoff? Ugh.

Berhow: What John said. And I pick Phil. How many great Slam chances does he have left? Not many.

Passov: I’m picking Phil to win, so, yes, Phil.

Sens: Tiger, but neither finishes in the top 10.

Ritter: Phil might ride the tidal wave of crowd support right into contention. I think TW plays well, but will be looking up at Phil on the leaderboard Sunday night.

Bamberger: Phil? (You know how the young people put question marks even after their declarative sentences.)

Zak: Amen to Sens’ answer. If DJ, JT or Rory play to their caliber, those 40-year-olds don’t stand a chance in my book.

Marksbury: C’mon guys! I’m still holding out hope for TW to bag that 15th major title this week. Though Phil completing the career Grand Slam is an appealing Plan B. If I force myself to make a call, it’s Tiger all the way.

Dethier: Stay with it, Jess! There is a blueprint for a Tiger victory: More of the ball-striking we saw last week in combination with the short game and putting we’ve seen much of the year (if that’s too optimistic after that putting performance, consider that Shinny’s greens may be so difficult they could even be an equalizer; nobody will own them). He’s shown all the component parts and I’ll take him over a still-reliable Phil.