Phil Mickelson's explanation was more harmful than his actions

Phil Mickelson's explanation was more harmful than his actions

Both Lefty and the USGA were complicit in decisions that could damage the game

Reid Spencer Publisher
image (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Phil Mickelson raises his arms in mock celebration of a par on the 13th hole in Sunday's final round at Shinnecock Hills. Mickelson's faux pas on that same hole the day before overshadowed play in the third round.

When a player deliberately breaks a rule to gain an advantage during a competitive round of golf, it’s called cheating.

Except, apparently, when Phil Mickelson does it during our national championship.

Mickelson’s exploits on the 13th hole during the third round of the 118th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills were thoroughly documented on Saturday. Essentially, Mickelson hit an 18-foot putt for bogey with too much pace and missed to the right of the cup.

When he saw that his ball was starting to gather speed and roll off the front of the green to roughly the same position from which he had hit his fourth shot, Mickelson chased after the putt, propelled the ball back toward the hole while it was still rolling and took two more putts to hole out.

The USGA assessed a two-stroke penalty for a violating of Rule 14-5, which states that “A player must not make a stroke at his ball while it is moving.” A stroke is defined as “the forward movement of the club made with the intention of striking at and moving the ball.”

The two-shot penalty, added to the eight times Mickelson actually struck the ball, gave him a “10” on the 13th hole and ballooned his third-round score to 81.

But the imbroglio was far from over. The USGA opted not to invoke Rule 1-2, which is referenced in Rule 14-5 in this manner: “Ball purposely deflected or stopped by player, partner or caddie—see Rule 1-2.”

Rule 1-2 states: “A player must not (i) take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play or (ii) alter physical conditions with the intent of affecting the playing of a hole.” The penalty for violating Rule 1-2? Two strokes. For an egregious violation? Disqualification.

The USGA’s rules committee opted for the narrowest possible interpretation and hung its hat on the judgment that Mickelson had made a stroke, rather than merely deflecting or stopping the ball. Where rule 14-5 relates solely to the act of striking a ball in motion, Rule 1-2 requires an interpretation of intent.

But there was no interpretation necessary in Mickelson’s case. Why? Because he told a gaggle of reporters exactly what his intent was. Mickelson copped to the intentional violation, saying he preferred to take the two-shot penalty rather than continue play of the hole from the spot where the ball would have come to rest.

Did the violation give him a competitive advantage? Mickelson allowed that it could have.

“I could still be out there potentially,” said Mickelson, who had already watch one chip shot from the back of the green roll of the front to a spot behind the right greenside bunker. “I know it's a two-shot penalty. At that time, I just didn't feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot over.

“I took the two-shot penalty and moved on. It's my understanding of the rules. I've had multiple times where I've wanted to do that. I just finally did it.”

The USGA deemed that rule 14-5 covered the entire incident, obviating the invocation of Rule 1-2 and rendering moot the question of intent. After Mickelson’s admission as to his motive in playing the moving ball, the USGA should have reconsidered.

Whether Mickelson deflected or stopped the ball with a “stroke” or simply by holding his putter motionless and letting the ball hit it is a distinction without a difference. His intent was to influence the movement of the ball to his own perceived advantage. How do we know that? Again, Phil said so.

There are several things Mickelson could have said, any of which would have been more palatable than the explanation he gave.

He could have said he lost his cool in a moment of frustration, and everything would have been forgiven. We’ve all been there, in thought if not in deed.

But when Metro Golf Magazines’ Lee Spencer asked him if it was a case of frustration boiling over, Mickelson demurred.

“I don't feel like it was frustration that crept over,” said Mickelson, who turned 48 on Saturday. “…I just took two shots and moved on, because I didn't want to keep hitting it back and forth. That's all there is to it.”

Mickelson also could have said he whacked the ball in protest of course conditions that got away from the USGA in higher-than-anticipated winds. That was the route John Daly took at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999, when he took a hearty swing at a moving ball as it rolled back toward him from the front of the eighth green.

Daly proceeded to rip the USGA for the course setup in what would become, a day later, one of our most cherished U.S. Opens—with the late Payne Stewart holing a 15-footer for par on the final hole to beat Mickelson by one shot and Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh by two.

What Mickelson actually said, however, was far more insidious than the invective Daly spewed 19 years ago. Mickelson couched his explanation in his knowledge and use of the rules to his advantage. What the rules don’t anticipate is blatant and deliberate violations designed to reward a player, with no consequences other than the prescribed penalty.

Arnold Palmer used the rules to his advantage during his 1958 Masters victory, when his knowledge of a local embedded ball rule enabled him to score a par rather than double bogey on the 12th hole. PGA Tour players routinely make legal drops on slopes they know will carry a ball closer to the hole in order to be able to place the ball on a friendlier lie.

But those are cases where players are acting within the rules, not deliberately breaking them. Are we really trying to teach our First Tee Kids that gaming-the-system calculations should be part of the game?

What separates golf from many other sports is the assumption that players will act honorably. In all levels of basketball, from peewees to the NBA, the deliberate violation of rules against contact occurs in every game as part of a strategy to overcome a deficit.

With his actions on Saturday, Mickelson introduced the “Hack-a-Shaq” mentality into the highest level of competitive golf, and that first step down the slippery slope will not be lost on young players learning how to conduct themselves on the course.

Whether his actions were truly calculated, as he said, or whether Mickelson simply concocted a cover story during the 30 minutes he sat in the Shinnecock pro-shop-turned-scoring-building isn’t relevant. With his explanation, the damage was done.

The distinction between Rule 14-5 and Rule 1-2 aside, the USGA could have invoked Rule 33-7, which states, “If a Committee considers that a player is guilty of a serious breach of etiquette, it may impose a penalty of disqualification under this Rule.”

The foundation of the concept of etiquette appears in under the heading “The Spirit of the Game” in Section I of the Rules of Golf. Here’s the text:

“Golf is played, for the most part, without the supervision of a referee or umpire. The game relies on the integrity of the individual to show consideration for other players and to abide by the Rules. All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be. This is the spirit of the game of golf.”

You decide whether Mickelson’s actions fell within the spirit of the game. You decide whether the USGA took a cowardly course in a championship that had already lost Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Bubba Watson to the 36-hole cut.

I, for one, was disappointed on Sunday morning when Mickelson arrived at Shinnecock for his 8:43 final-round tee time. I had hoped that, with a night to sleep on what had happened, he would make a heartfelt apology for his breach of the rules, describe it as a huge error in judgment and withdraw from the event.

My disappointment grew more profound when Mickelson reached the 13th hole, made a 5-footer to save par and raised his arms in mock celebration. So much for the prospect of contrition.

Mickelson shot 69 in the final round, but he shouldn’t take a dime from this championship. Instead, after time to reflect, he should do all he can to provide an antidote for the unprecedented poisonous element he injected so cavalierly into the game of golf.

(Phil Mickelson closeup: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(Phil Micklson, walking from 18th green: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

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