Kuchar, Putnam Accused Of Controversial Backstopping

One of the hot-button issues of 2018 needed only two weeks in 2019 to rear its head once again.

“Backstopping” — the act of leaving a ball unmarked and in the line of play of a competitor — is back at the top of the golf conversation following Sunday’s final round at the Sony Open in Hawaii. 

Playing the par-5 9th hole at Waialae Country Club, the final pairing of Andrew Putnam and Matt Kuchar both hit their second shots into the left greenside bunker some 30 yards from the pin. Putnam played first, hitting a wonderful shot to six inches from the hole.

Unmarked Ball Costs Phil Mickelson Over $100,000

Kuchar then played his shot with Putnam’s ball still sitting on the putting surface, which raised the ire of not only fans watching, but also the Golf Channel commentary team working the event.

“I’m very surprised that Putnam didn’t mark his ball there,” on-course reporter Jim “Bones” Mackay said as Kuchar dug in to hit his bunker shot. “If Kuchar’s (ball) were to hit (Putnam’s), it would really help him out.” 

“That’s crazy,” color analyst Frank Nobilio added. “It really is.”

Kuchar hit a decent shot that didn’t bring Putnam’s ball into play, but the fact that it was possible led host Steve Sands to ask Nobilo a simple question.

“Why wouldn’t you mark that?” Sands asked.

“You ask any other generation and it’s something that we have chatted about over the years: to provide a backstop, especially at this key moment,” Nobilo said. “(Putnam) had the option to run up there and tap it in, do whatever you want. Remember the rules changed, you are allowed to putt with the flag in — do not leave it there.”

“One of these days that’s going to happen,” Sands replied.

“It’s going to cost someone,” Nobilo continued. “Can you image if Matt’s bunker shot is going fast and actually hits the ball and goes in?”

In fact, this phenomenon has already cost multiple pros: Phil Mickelson and Chesson Hadley, to cite one specific instance. Tony Finau was the beneficiary of an unmarked ball remaining on the green at the 2017 Safeway Open.

Facing a difficult bunker shot from a partially plugged lie, Finau’s ball hit playing partner Jason Kokrak’s ball near the hole, which allowed Finau to get up and down to finish one shot ahead of Mickelson and Hadley. Ultimately, the shot saved was enough to earn Finau a solo second-place finish.

As a result, that one stroke ended up costing Mickelson and Hadley over $100,000 each in earnings that week.

Despite this particular instance causing no damage, the possibility of helping a competitor and therefore failing to “protect the field” has those against backstopping up in arms. 

“It’s embarrassing,” former Australian Tour pro Michael Clayton tweeted. “Professionally embarrassing. And shocking to past generations.”

Currently, there is no specific language in the Rules of Golf that outlaw backstopping.