Golf in the news for the wrong reasons


This is not the kind of publicity the U.S. PGA Tour had in mind.

Golf’s two best players are linked by accusations of cheating—one becausehe has a wife, the other because he has a wedge.

Oh, for happier times.

It was only four months ago when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson posed on the18th green at the Tour Championship in Atlanta with commissioner Tim Finchem,both holding a trophy, smiles filling the frame. Woods had won the FedEx Cup forthe second time, while Mickelson’s victory seemed to signal a renewed rivalrybetween the game’s brightest stars.

These days, handshakes have been replaced by hand-wringing.

The biggest blow remains the absence of Woods, missing since hismiddle-of-the-night car accident Nov. 27 that fueled sordid tales ofextramarital affairs. Even though it has been nearly two months since heannounced his indefinite break, the laughs kept coming when a San Diego stripclub flew a banner over Torrey Pines that read, “We miss you too, Tiger.”

One day later, the news shifted to a banner quote in The San FranciscoChronicle.

Scott McCarron is not the only player upset about a 20-year-old legalloophole that allows players to use Ping Eye2 wedges with grooves that no longerconform to the rules. He’s just the only player to use the word “cheating.”

“It’s cheating, and I’m appalled Phil has put it in play,” McCarron toldthe newspaper.

Mickelson is happy to be a lightning rod on this topic because he doesn’tlike the U.S. Golf Association’s new rule on grooves and is miffed that Finchemnever takes his ideas seriously. This is a chance to make both of them squirm.In the meantime, he would have expected, even welcomed, healthy debate with hispeers on the Ping wedges.

But cheating?

That’s hitting below his white belt.

It’s like the ferry scene in the movie “Jaws,” when Mayor Vaughn is tryingto talk Chief Brody out of closing the beaches. “You yell, ‘Barracuda’ andeverybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell, ‘Shark’ and we’ve got a panic on ourhands on the Fourth of July.”

Mickelson didn’t panic. But it’s a safe bet everyone around him did.

The world’s No. 2 player said on national television that he was “publiclyslandered,” an ominous choice of words that suggested lawyers would be involvedif the tour didn’t handle the situation to his liking.

The question now is which mess is easier to fix.

So far, the only damage Woods has inflicted has been to himself and hisfamily. He has lost endorsement deals with AT&T and Accenture, and his approvalratings have plunged.

The gloomy forecast for TV ratings cannot be measured unless Woods is gonelonger than eight months, which is how much time he missed last year due to kneesurgery. Ratings were slightly up at Torrey Pines for consecutive years withouthim. And remember, Woods has never played one-third of the tournaments on theU.S. PGA Tour schedule. Those events have managed to survive.

The tour’s biggest concern will be trying to control the gallery when Woodsreturns, if not protecting the guys with whom Woods is playing. If a strip clubwill hire a plane at a tournament where Woods is not playing, what happens onthe ground when he is playing?

Far more troublesome, though not as sensational, is the issue with wedges.

The Ping Eye 2 wedges, provided they were made before April 1, 1990, areapproved for play, even though the depth and volume of the grooves in thosewedges are not allowed. Attribute that to a pair of lawsuits Ping settledagainst the USGA (1990) and the U.S. PGA (1993) over square grooves. Thesettlements take precedence over any rules change.

What makes this situation awkward is that not everyone has access to themunless they find the wedges on eBay, in garages or used club bins. PadraigHarrington spent the holidays giving away his old clubs to charity—includinghis Pings—only to find out he could still use them.

First, however, is getting around this name-calling.

Asked about his “cheating” quote, McCarron didn’t back off the next day,although he described Mickelson’s actions as “bending the rules.” That wouldbe akin to “barracuda.”

Still, the damage had been done.

Mickelson’s camp has been checking the Internet and has lost track of howmany times “cheating” and “Mickelson” are found together.

For those who thought McCarron might apologize on Monday, he chose toclarify instead. He said he never called Mickelson a “cheater.” He only saidthat by using the Ping wedge, it was “cheating.” Glad to get that cleared up.

The tour can choose to fine or suspend McCarron under its “conductunbecoming a professional” policy, which prohibits players from making commentsto the media that unreasonably attack or disparage other players (among otherthings).

Then again, the tour has a policy of not disclosing discipline.

Perhaps the most troubling part of Ping chairman John Solheim’s statement onMonday is that he told the USGA and U.S. PGA Tour in July 2007 that changing theregulations on grooves could lead to what is happening now—confusion,consternation, accusations.

Finchem was to meet with players Tuesday night at Riviera and speak to themedia on Wednesday. The best-case scenario is that McCarron and Mickelson canmake peace, and that Finchem can find a solution to the Ping wedges.

Then he can go back to wondering when Woods will return.