Golf in the news for the wrong reasons


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

Golf’s two best players are linked by accusations of cheating – one because he 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 the 18th 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 for the second time, while Mickelson’s victory seemed to signal a renewed rivalry between the game’s brightest stars.

These days, handshakes have been replaced by hand-wringing.

The biggest blow remains the absence of Woods, missing since his middle-of-the-night car accident Nov. 27 that fueled sordid tales of extramarital affairs. Even though it has been nearly two months since he announced his indefinite break, the laughs kept coming when a San Diego strip club 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 Francisco Chronicle.

Scott McCarron is not the only player upset about a 20-year-old legal loophole that allows players to use Ping Eye2 wedges with grooves that no longer conform 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 told the newspaper.

Mickelson is happy to be a lightning rod on this topic because he doesn’t like the U.S. Golf Association’s new rule on grooves and is miffed that Finchem never 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 his peers 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 trying to talk Chief Brody out of closing the beaches. “You yell, ‘Barracuda’ and everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell, ‘Shark’ and we’ve got a panic on our hands 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 “publicly slandered,” an ominous choice of words that suggested lawyers would be involved if 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 his family. He has lost endorsement deals with AT&T and Accenture, and his approval ratings have plunged.

The gloomy forecast for TV ratings cannot be measured unless Woods is gone longer than eight months, which is how much time he missed last year due to knee surgery. Ratings were slightly up at Torrey Pines for consecutive years without him. And remember, Woods has never played one-third of the tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule. Those events have managed to survive.

The tour’s biggest concern will be trying to control the gallery when Woods returns, if not protecting the guys with whom Woods is playing. If a strip club will hire a plane at a tournament where Woods is not playing, what happens on the 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, are approved for play, even though the depth and volume of the grooves in those wedges are not allowed. Attribute that to a pair of lawsuits Ping settled against the USGA (1990) and the PGA (1993) over square grooves. The settlements take precedence over any rules change.

What makes this situation awkward is that not everyone has access to them unless they find the wedges on eBay, in garages or used club bins. Padraig Harrington spent the holidays giving away his old clubs to charity – including his 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 would be akin to “barracuda.”

Still, the damage had been done.

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

For those who thought McCarron might apologize on Monday, he chose to clarify instead. He said he never called Mickelson a “cheater.” He only said that 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 “conduct unbecoming a professional” policy, which prohibits players from making comments to the media that unreasonably attack or disparage other players (among other things).

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

Perhaps the most troubling part of Ping chairman John Solheim’s statement on Monday is that he told the USGA and PGA Tour in July 2007 that changing the regulations 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 the media on Wednesday. The best-case scenario is that McCarron and Mickelson can make peace, and that Finchem can find a solution to the Ping wedges.

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