Golf on TV: Latest ‘backstopping’ episode raises issue of integrity

NORTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 04: Jimmy Walker lines up a putt on the second green during the third round of the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston on September 4, 2016 in Norton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Golf on TV: Latest ‘backstopping’ episode raises issue of integrity

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Golf on TV: Latest ‘backstopping’ episode raises issue of integrity

I’ve talked in this space about the problem of “backstopping” on the PGA Tour – that is, players not marking their golf balls to help their buddies. It’s been the subject of occasional though mild criticism by some television commentators. I noted, for example, that Golf Channel’s Phil Blackmar took exception to backstopping last fall in Shanghai by the headliner group of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Henrik Stenson.

But given that this is an issue of integrity, I’ve been surprised that no announcer has displayed the sort of righteous indignation that the subject would seem to demand. That might be about to change, thanks to a June 8 tweet from architect and former pro Michael Clayton, who included footage of backstopping by Byeong Hun An and John Huh.

It got more attention the following day when Tour pro Jimmy Walker acknowledged the practice, tweeting: “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.”

This appropriately drew fire on Sunday’s Golf Central Pregame show on Golf Channel.

“When you look at Ben An and John Huh, they’ve had time to take the flag out, but didn’t have time to mark the ball?” said Jim Gallagher Jr. “That’s just breaking the rules. And Jimmy Walker is pretty much saying, ‘That’s what I do.’ He’s admitting that he’s breaking the rules. … This game is about integrity. We’re getting off the integrity train now.”

Arron Oberholser compared it to cycling’s code of silence, sometimes called “omerta.” It’s never good for the PGA Tour when it’s being mentioned in the same sentence as professional cycling.

“In cycling it was egregious with the doping scandals in the ’90s and early 2000s,” Oberholser said. “We have our own version of omerta on the PGA Tour with this over the last two to three years. Guys aren’t talking about it. And, basically, I don’t know why they’re not talking about it. But Jimmy is coming out and breaking that code of silence by doing this and throwing everybody under the bus.”

The feeling here is that the PGA Tour needs to take whatever steps necessary to put an end to this. Backstopping only serves to undermine integrity, which is at the core of the PGA Tour’s brand.

More innovation from Europe

Another month, another innovation from European Tour CEO Keith Pelley. Last month it was the second playing of GolfSixes. This past week, it was the inaugural Shot Clock Masters in Austria.

Let’s hope that this is the first step toward institutionalizing the shot clock.

“It makes for a better viewing experience on television, a better customer experience at the tournaments, and the golfers love it as well,” Pelley said.

He was asked the obvious question: “If this is successful, what’s next?”

Pelley was noncommittal on that question, saying he wanted to assess all available information. But this simple innovation seemed to work for everyone. It’s easy to see the appeal for fans and TV viewers, but perhaps this experiment went a long way toward getting the players to buy into the idea. A graphic during the third round noted that the average round was 31 minutes shorter than the tour average. That’s good for you and me watching at home. And Dominik Holyer, who anchored the coverage, noted that the stroke average was better than it had been in eight previous visits to Diamond Country Club.

So remind us again: What’s the argument against a shot clock?

“This works. It’s amazing,” said Jay Townsend, Holyer’s colleague. “The players are not uncomfortable. All they’re doing is being forced to be ready when it’s their turn. It’s not changing their routine. … It’s been very refreshing.”

Commercial free means lots of down time

The USGA championships, with the exception of the U.S. Open, have adopted a commercial-free format, thanks to Rolex’s sponsorship. This is great for viewers, but the practical effect for Fox Sports is that there’s a lot of time to fill, particularly during match play when there are few players on the course. So the USGA and Fox have stockpiled vignettes and features to complement the live action.

One of the best uses of this down time through the season’s first two televised USGA championships was historian Martin Davis’ feature during the Curtis Cup on architect A.W. Tillinghast and his work at Quaker Ridge Golf Club. Davis, for example, illustrated Tillinghast’s use of deception bunkers short of greens and aiming trees behind the greens. That was helpful for viewers as they followed the coverage. Gwk

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