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Today In Backstopping: Finau Saves A Shot, Thomas Says It's His "Right" To Play Quickly To Use Ball On Green As An Aid  

During Sunday's Safeway Open final round we had yet another example of the backstopping practice prevalent only in men's professional golf (here, here and here for 2017 samples). In case you haven't been watching, this is the now-regular practice where golf balls are left down on a green unless it's in the path to the hole, with various motives and theories as to why this has become practice instead of players simply marking their ball to protect the field. Speed of play is cited as the reasoning.

As Will Gray points out here for, Tony Finau was likely saved a shot during the 2017 Safeway Open final round when he had a buried lie with playing partner Jason Kokrak's 34-yard wedge shot was near the cup. In a post round interview with George Savaricus, Finau said he'd forgotten Kokrak's ball was by the hole when he hit. 

"Funny thing is, I forgot he hit. I was so focused on what I needed to do and how hard my shot was," Finau said. "I hit a perfect shot, but it was still going to go about 25-30 feet past. It was a bonus to hit his ball. I used the rules to my advantage, I guess, not knowing."

Finau finished second, one ahead of Phil Mickelson and two behind winner Brendan Steele.

Here is the shot that elicited a response from PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas.

In responding to Gray, Thomas said the practice of playing with a ball down by the hole happens "MAYBE" five times a year and is "part of the game, if I want to rush and hit a shot for that reason, it's my right."

So to recap: the player of the year says it's his right to rush a shot before a player can mark it, to gain an advantage that happens maybe five times a year. There you have it!

The implication of Thomas' second tweet is unclear to me. He retweeted a fan's thought related to grandstands and spectators that suggests he views this as a rub of the green matter, even while believing it's his right to take advantage of a competitor's ball on the green.

Somewhere Bobby Jones is harumphing at this admission.

The Rules allow a tournament committee to disqualify a player if they determined "players have agreed not to lift a ball that might assist any competitor."

Thomas also suggested the players are often too far away to mark a ball in time and this is why the practice occurs...five times a year, "MAYBE".

Half the time in these cases--that's MAYBE 2.5 times a year in Thomas's thinking--the walking distance is apparently too great for a player to wait, as Thomas demonstrated on the final day at TPC Boston earlier this season when Marc Leishman chipped up to the sixth hole and Thomas played quickly to enjoy what we now know was a hoped-for advantage.

But if we take the Kokrak-Finau example at Safeway, it would require an extra 20-22 seconds to have walked the 34 yards to slap a coin down before Finau played. Since Finau forgot Kokrak had hit, this wasn't possible. I'm not sure how you forget that a playing partner hit a shot, but alas, this is the situation.

Thomas believes too much attention is being paid to the subject, but prominent others are not agreeing.

While many don't see this practice as a major issue, I do not agree for the very simple reason that professional golf's success is built on the integrity of its players. Corporations pay handsomely to be part of professional golf because they view the athletes as the most honest and upstanding in all of sports. Many fans follow the sport and love it because the athletes have such integrity.

Having a top player openly confessing to taking advantage of a ball on the green to possibly better his chances of finishing near the hole, is not great. If we found that his peers knows he does this and leave the occasional ball down to help him, we'd have the makings of disqualification for violating the rules. That this is even a "thing" speaks to a cultural shift and behavior that, if it becomes commonplace, could cause some to question the integrity of the players. Or, at the very least, make fans question if the players are legitimiately competing or colluding for peculiar reasons.

Besides, play can be sped up in much better ways than this.

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Reader Comments (54)

Whoa...rules experts, serious question for a novice here: can a committee note that Justin is openly on the record saying he tries to play a shot with a ball down for the next time he does this and it happens? That boy needs to be DQ'd and DQ'd hard to learn a lesson. His "right" my ass.
10.8.2017 | Unregistered CommenterNellie
You can take the boy out of the country club but you can’t take the country club out of the boy.
10.8.2017 | Unregistered CommenterOB
The speeds up play argument is their version of ‘it’s for the children’ that is a free pass for any argument for some people. By saying it’s to speed up play they are trying to cut off any criticism at the pass.

I mean all you complainers go on and on about slow play and then when we do something you complain about that to.

10.8.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGriffin
Nothing to stop them playing just as quickly when the other ball is in the way of the hole, but of course in that situation they wait until it's marked as it's not helping them. Quick play only comes into it when there's a backstop. Thomas is a spoiled brat, would love to see him DQ'd out of all of them. Will be interesting to see if this happens much at The Masters. Maybe they might intervene.
10.8.2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob S
Rob S

Unlike its founder, The Masters is notorious for looking the other way on questionable rules situations.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterPABoy
I've said it before and will say it again, you will not see this practice at the Ryder Cup. And that tells you all you need to know.

And FWIW - JT's stocks are falling by the day with me. I genuinely expected better.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatthewM
If the ball had been on the other side of be cup i.e. - in the way - you can be sure he would have made sure it was marked. Agree with Oberholser.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrianS
And, you know the only reason Thomas retweeted that dross about grandstands was because he thought it was a tweet from South African born PGA Tour member Branden Grace, and not some random golf fan with the same sounding name, spelt differently.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatthewM
C'mon, people. As for the cultural shift thing, the grow the game folks know they have the traditionalist fan base locked up. We'll sit there and moan about it but we're not going anywhere. The potential new fan, that prized commodity, loves this stuff. To Joe "get in the hole" Beer, this adds an exciting element to the game when a player can screw the field within the rules. How about we ask the new First Tee Chairman if the situation is included in the Spirit of the Game instruction process? What the kids come away with is more important than how dopey pros police themselves. If Hadley and Mickelson (T3) aren't sounding off about the hit their check took, let them eat cake.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterD. maculata
D mal,

I suspect the traditional fan base ain't what it used to be. The game is changing and not everyone likes the change. Heck there's lifelong golfers here who speak of not watching Tour events anymore. Sure they play, but they're not PGA Tour buffs like they perhaps were.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatthewM
I don't have a problem with the current practice. If three players are out in the fairway, 60 yards out, and the first two hit their shots into close proximity of the hole, the third player has an advantage. So what? That's just part of the game.

Maybe they should change the rule that no one marks until every ball is on the green. Once in awhile a player's ball might be stymied, but I would say that is "rub of the green." Play on. If that would speed up play, I am all for it.

Of all the problems which should be addressed in the modern game, this one is way, way down the list.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterHardy Greaves
Anyone who thinks this isn't collusion should give your head a shake. It may not be against the rules, but it is certainly against the spirit of the rules.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBDF
It gives me a little insight into the kind of person JT is when no one is around or no one is looking. I know a lot of people like this.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDrew Scott
Speed up play is laughable, but this is not new and has been going on for decades, Spotlight is on this issue now and I assume that ruling bodies are assembling committees with lawyers to discuss....
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterConvert
Three competitors are around 100 yards out. the first two stuff it to 2 feet, both past the hole. The 3rd lands short but hot, ball rolls up past the cup, hits one of the balls and stops. No penalty, no collusion.

But say 3rd shot catches a front bunker. All three make their way to green. first two stand on side of green while 3rd hits, and like Finau, the ball is stopped by one of the other two. Collusion. Should be penalties all around.

This is perfectly clear to me. You have a stroke-play event and each golfer is responsible to the field. The guy in the sand now has a simple par instead of a likely bogey. What could be more plain?

Of course in fourball match play backstopping is an important part of partner play. But that's an entirely different game. There is no field to protect.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterFXF
Golfers have been doing this for 100s of years, yet just now in 2017 it's a big transgression that must be changed immediately?
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterOle Tom Morris
@Convert, OTM...I have watched PGA TOUR golf for many years, and I can't really remember this happening very often on chip shots...occasionally on longer shots, but rarely. Can you imagine Azinger or Strange, Faldo or Woosnam allowing this to happen? I believe they would be practically running to get a mark on their ball rather than help their opponents. Maybe I'm wrong, but it does seem to be a fairly new unwritten agreement.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBDF
How do you know that Bobby Jones would "harrumph" at this? Remember they still played stymies when he was around?
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterOle Tom Morris
I cant imagine that Finau played this shot in 10 seconds. The idea that they hadnt time to mark their balls or that they were saving time is nonsense.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered Commenterchico
These young stars are quickly coming off as your usual run of the mill entitled brats.
The play faster excuse is a transparent if approaches and marking the ball constitute the whole problem.
Complete crap.
1 shot penalty stops this cheating tomorrow
10.9.2017 | Unregistered Commenterjjshaka
We are seeing more and more breaching of the rules and spirit of competition violations by todays young pros, Choi, Lexi and Rahm with their improper/sloppy ball marking.

These players are supposed to be professional. They should know at least the most elementary rules including the spirit of the game in competition. Including having a duty to protect the field.

Comments like, “… it’s my right” by Justin Thomas shows he has little regard for the field. Sorry Justin, you are a great player, but you are not entitled to that right if it involves protecting the field.

Then Finau says, “… I used the rules to my advantage, I guess, not knowing.” This says he doesn’t have a clear understanding of the matter. They are both defending their situation because they are now both culpable. You know they’d be telling their playing opponent to mark their ball if the ball was in front of the hole, but if it can help them, then it’s another matter… yeah right.

This didn’t happen on the PGA Tour back in the day. Guys like Hale Irwin, Ray Floyd, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Watson set the culture, these guys would rip young Thomas and Finau a new one if they pulled this stunt.

Mike Clayton called it out – “Silent Collusion”— should not be tolerated on the PGA Tour.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterZokol
Tour professionals worried about taking too long to play? Now THAT'S laughable.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered Commenterrgw
Return to this after the ball distance problem is addressed, since it really matters so little.

Protect the field. They're already insulated from real life, what more do they need?
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGolfFan
This is patently cheating. Finau knew it, too - his response was, uh, less than convincing. I cannot understand how rules officials and players allow this to happen. Players who got bumped down a spot should call out this BS.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGinGHIN
Something that clearly strikes me is that the course is there to have players use their abilities against each other on a level playing field. If one of the players in the group hits a ball in there tight and the other player can try to "use" that ball placement to his advantage,then other players in the field who are faced with a similar shot, but without a ball there to potentially help them are at a disadvantage. How is that a level playing field? I get how weather conditions change and one who plays without wind has a distinct edge over one who battles harsher elements with morning vs afternoon tee times, or rain that comes in. But this change in a shot's potential outcome due to a ball on the green for one player and not for another is unsettling and that notion that one player would take advantage of this unfair situation goes against what makes this game the most "honest" of sports.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterYessir
@ Yessir - the issue isn't so much towards the guy hitting the shot, it is the guy leaving his ball in place to aid the other guy. Or more significantly, the idea that there is an unspoken agreement for (some?) players to do so out of "courtesy" or as an assist to help.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrianS
Want to speed up play, quit marking 2 footers because you're standing in someone's "through line."
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBob
If you really want to "protect the field" and "level the playing field", how about treating a divot as GUR. When the guy in the group ahead of you stripes his drive down the middle, why should you be penalized for putting it in the exact same place? As for backstopping, if Finau is good enough, from a plugged lie no less, to purposely use his opponents ball as a backstop, he should have been aiming for a bigger target - the hole!
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterTampaGolfer
When it happened on the telecast Curt Byrum really wanted to say more but had to restrain himself. And then to have Finau say afterwards that he “forgot” Kokrak's ball was by the hole??? And if the ball was directly in your line would you have also forgotten?? Was going to pick Finau in our upcoming golf pool but have nixed that idea…only want to choose guys that I can actually root for all year - problem is the list keeps getting smaller and smaller...
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterRichie Rich
Tampa Golfer is spot on -- where do we stop?

Let's just change all of the rules because everything is "unfair"

Grow up folks
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterOle Tom Morris
Man, this happens to me all the time. My buddies hit approach shots tight and I use their balls as backstops while I also fire at the flag. Then we all sign for 62s and head off to the fitness trailer before going home to take out the trash.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn
"It's my right..."

Modern America at its finest. Does this not sum it up perfectly? Pretty sure I just read in one of the rags that Spieth is still defending Lexi's "mistreatment". I can just about guarantee that Faldo, in his prime, would have walked toward his ball with the intention of marking it, the player trying to hurry would have backed off from seeing movement, and Faldo would have proceeded to mark his ball. He could have cared less that fellow players thought he was a ###k for doing so.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered Commenterol Harv
The real tell for these guys is that there is no way in the world that they would hit if they had a ball right in their path in front of the hole. They would wait as long as it took for that guy to mark his ball.

The other issue here is the appearance of favoritism where you get buddies helping each other out but maybe not so for some new guy or maybe a less liked player and that shouldn't be how it works.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGriffin
ol' Harv,

'it's my right'

Yep, so does that mean if someone rushes up and marks there ball before Justin Thomas can hit that they are depriving him of his 'rights'?

Incredibly stupid and selfish attitude.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGriffin
The best backstop is the flagstick. Play away quickly, gentlemen.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterFC
Some pertinent information from the Decisions On the Rules of Golf...

Ball Assisting Fellow-Competitor on Putting Green; Procedure for Referee If Competitor Does Not Lift Ball
Q. In stroke play, a competitor’s ball is in a position to assist the play of a fellow-competitor and the competitor is in a position to lift the ball under Rule 22-1 without delaying the fellow-competitor’s play. However, the competitor does not take any action to invoke the Rule. Would a referee be justified in intervening and requesting the competitor to invoke the Rule to protect himself and the rest of the field?
A. Yes. If the competitor were to object, there would be strong evidence of an agreement not to lift the ball for the purpose of assisting the fellow-competitor in breach of Rule 22-1. The referee would be justified in so advising the competitors involved and warning that failure to lift the ball would result in disqualification under Rule 22-1.”

Certainly some judgement involved in determining if a competitor is in a position to lift a ball without delaying play but there have clearly been instances when the spirit of Rule 22-1 has been ignored.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterLeo47
if everyone on tour plays by the same "unwritten" rules, then no one gains an edge!

while we're at it, let's have breakfast balls of the first tee as well :)
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterManku
"This didn’t happen on the PGA Tour back in the day. Guys like Hale Irwin, Ray Floyd, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Watson set the culture, these guys would rip young Thomas and Finau a new one if they pulled this stunt."

Exactly, but who are the leaders now that are going to do this? Phil, Furyk, DLIII, Ernie Els...unfortunately I don't see it happening.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered Commenterol Harv
The Decision above is interesting because I guess if the player playing second eg Finau in the case yesterday were to address their ball and play really quickly, then the guy marking would be delaying play because Finau would have to back off.
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob S
10.9.2017 | Unregistered CommenterLateral Hazard

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