Tony Finau nearly turned a simmering debate on the PGA Tour into a powder keg Sunday at the Safeway Open.
If Finau wins in Napa Valley, this growing suspicion that players are using fellow competitors’ golf balls as “backstops” while pitching and chipping blows up.
If Finau wins, the issue wouldn’t easily be dismissed today as a skirmish waged on the game’s fringe by rules geeks and conspiracy theorists.
If Finau wins, this debate explodes into a question of whether there really is something calculated in players failing to mark balls that they leave so close to the hole. It erupts into more volatile suspicions that this is becoming an accepted practice that corrupts the spirit of the game.
For those who missed it, Finau was two shots off the lead when he hit into a greenside bunker at the 12th hole at Silverado Resort’s North Course. After Jason Kokrak chipped up to about a foot behind the hole, Finau didn’t wait for Kokrak to mark his ball. He blasted a bunker shot that Finau estimated was going to race 25 feet or more past the hole. Instead, Finau’s ball collided with Kokrak’s, stopping 2 feet from the hole.
Finau saved par, and he eventually caught the leader before fading to finish solo second behind Brendan Steele.
If Finau won Sunday, he would have been left to answer questions about his intent playing out of that bunker at the 12th. He would have found himself answering the kind of questions that could have unfairly clouded his second PGA Tour title.
“I used the rules to my advantage, I guess, not knowing,” Finau said afterward.
It was important for Finau to throw in those last two words, his “not knowing,” because without those words this blows up even with a second-place finish.
Without those words, Finau faces questions about whether he was knowingly setting up Kokrak’s ball as a potential backstop, if he needed one.
To be perfectly clear, and fair to Finau, he did not violate the Rules of Golf. Nobody can impugn him that way based on how this unfolded.
But Finau could have and should have eliminated even the appearance of impropriety. He should have insisted Kokrak mark his ball.
While there is no rule that required Finau to direct Kokrak to mark his ball, the rules can be slippery here, as they so often are.
Rule 22-1 frames potential violations in these situations.
The rule states that if a player believes a ball may assist any other player, he may mark the ball, if it is his ball, or he may direct the ball to be marked, if it’s not his ball.
There’s also Decision 22/6.
That decision states that if players agree not to mark a ball so that it can be used as a backstop, those players should be disqualified.
Good luck proving collusion, but that’s exactly what skeptics suspect may be happening on Tour, even if it has evolved without some formal conspiracy. They believe there may be a standard practice developing where creating “backstops” is the implied intention.
More than a trophy hangs in the balance in these situations.
Finau took home $669,000 for finishing second on Sunday. Phil Mickelson and Chesson Hadley finished a shot behind Finau and took home $359,600 for sharing third place.
If Finau had not saved par at the 12th and fallen into a three-way tie for second, he would have taken home $462,933, as would Mickelson and Hadley.
That matters, and so do the FedExCup points at stake.
It should be noted there’s a strong contingent of the game’s followers who believe this is much ado about nothing. These observers believe “backstopping” is primarily unintended as a pace-of-play function, and they don’t want to see the game more maddeningly slowed with excessive ball marking. They believe what happened to Finau was rare, and just rub of the green.
Count Justin Thomas, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, among them.
“It MAYBE happens five times a year,” Thomas tweeted after Finau finished his round. “It’s part of the game, if I want to rush and hit a shot for that reason, it’s my right . . .”
Based on the Rules of Golf, this is simple. It’s wrong to play a shot knowing a fellow player’s ball might easily serve as a backstop if a player deems he might need it. It’s also complicated, because this is all about intent. More than that, it’s about pace of play and the possibly absurd delays taken to require a mark.
So should the USGA and PGA Tour intervene here to help Finau and others avoid igniting a powder keg in the future?
Yes, but not with new rules.
The last thing the game needs is more rules. Backstopping is something that ought to be policed by the players themselves. There’s nothing like shaming in golf as a rules enforcement. Player leadership needs to determine if there’s a problem and solve it within, because intent is too indecipherable to define with a rule.
The PGA Tour’s administration ought to step in, too, to address whether Thomas is right in his thinking, or whether there is more for players to consider. Fans should know whether the PGA Tour deems Thomas is correct in asserting he has “a right” to play quickly. This isn’t about trying to craft specific language for a new rule. It’s about examining hearts and creating awareness about the importance of even the appearance of impropriety.
There’s no definitive solution here, but if the Tour’s going to implement an integrity program to protect itself from gambling issues, then framing backstopping issues for players that will reduce the possibilities they become a powder keg some Sunday soon is worth flushing out.