2018 U.S. Open: What is backstopping, and why is it such a hot topic of debate?

Ah, backstopping. If the U.S. Open is one of the four golf tournaments you watch every year, then you may have never even heard of the term. It's been a spicy topic of debate for at least the last few years, and likely much longer than that. I've only recently seen it bandied about, so I'd say about two years ago is where my relationship with the term and the idea starts.

First of all, what is backstopping? Backstopping is the act of a golfer leaving his golf ball on the putting green and not marking it if it's past the hole while whoever he is playing with has a sand shot or a chip. The reasoning behind it is that if you leave your ball two feet behind the pin and I have a sand shot and hit your ball, I get to play my ball where it ends up and you get to replace yours. Your ball serves as a backboard for mine, and you get to replace yours anyway.

Here are a few examples of what this looks like.

Opponents of the idea cite fairness to the rest of the field, which seems fairly obvious. You don't want some guy who is going to miss the cut potentially helping the guy leading the tournament by giving him a backboard to use beyond the cup. 

Proponents of the idea cite, uh, pace of play because it takes a long time to mark your ball (which seems like a reach at best). Anyway, the entire thing exploded last week when Jimmy Walker got into a spat on Twitter over the backstopping debate, and now we have a face of modern backstopping, unintentional or not.

The problem with Walker's position in the thread, as Michael Clayton pointed on Twitter, is that it's illegal. Here's Rule 22-1: In stroke play, if the Committee determines that competitors have agreed not to lift a ball that might assist any competitor, they are disqualified.

I'm not sure if Walker didn't know that or was just ignoring it -- he later reiterated that he always asks his partner if he wants the ball marked -- but designating based on likability is not the greatest look. Walker is certainly not the only one who does it, either. It's a common practice on Tour, and many see it as a malaise. Here's Geoff Shackelford from last October.

Backstopping must stop. Now. The image and integrity of the PGA Tour depends on its members playing by the rules. The weird and rapidly evolving practice of leaving courtesy backstops in the vicinity of the hole bends the spirit of the rules and can only lead fans to ask: "If they're willing to do this for the opposition, what other collusion is occurring?"

Those are fair questions to ask. This might not seem like a big deal, but when a tournament can hinge on one or two strokes, saving par or making birdie because you hit an opponent's ball can be monumental. Other proponents for backstopping have cited that if a player wants to hit a ball quickly for the sole purpose of using an opponent's ball as a backstop, they should be allowed to.

Eamon Lynch of Golfweek interviewed Fox broadcaster Paul Azinger on Tuesday, and boy did he have some thoughts. Ultimately he blamed the person chipping the ball, not the player whose ball needs to be marked. 

"The bad guy is the guy who chips a ball when that ball is sitting there.," Azinger told Golfweek. "Nobody should do that! Nobody should do that!" 

It's a good point and probably the right one. Just because something has become common practice -- remember, Walker pointed out that he actually asks his opponent what he wants him to do with it -- doesn't mean it's correct (or legal). And for a sport that so closely aligns itself with its rules, this is an issue.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson was asked about this on Tuesday, and it won't be the last time you hear it during the U.S. Open. It's likely to be a debate that rages on all week at Shinnecock Hills and spills over into the broadcast and on social media.

"For me, if a ball's remotely close to my line, I have them mark it," said Johnson. "So I don't know. I've always done it. If it's out of my way, I'll leave it there. But if it's remotely around where I'm hitting it, I'll have them mark it."

That doesn't totally answer the question, though, because if a ball is beyond the hole it is technically not in your line. And maybe that sums it up better than anything. The best player in the world was asked about backstopping, and he gave a creative answer that cleverly got around addressing the issue head on, which is right where it seems we are with backstopping at the professional level right now.

So who will win the 2018 U.S. Open, and which long shots are set to stun the golfing world? Find out by visiting SportsLine now to see the U.S. Open projected leaderboard from the model that's nailed four of the last five majors heading into the weekend.    

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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