Updated Oct. 9, 5:50 a.m. ET
INCHEON, South Korea – Phil Mickelson said he was trying to “put a firmer ball in play” during his fourball match on Friday, but it ended up costing the U.S. team two holes and likely a half-point at the Presidents Cup.
With the match between Mickelson and Zach Johnson and Internationals Adam Scott and Jason Day all square through six holes, Mickelson teed off on the 560-yard, par-5 seventh hole with what he called a “firmer [golf] ball,” which was not the same model as the version with which he began the match.
By switching balls, Mickelson violated the one-ball condition. After teeing off, Mickelson questioned a rules official about whether the one-ball condition was in effect. He was told it was and that he was disqualified from finishing the hole.
The penalty for a breach of the one-ball condition in match play is a one-hole "adjustment to the state of the match." With Mickelson in his pocket, Johnson played by himself and lost to Adam Scott and Jason Day. The loss of hole combined with the penalty adjustment meant that the U.S. effectively lost No. 7 twice, going from all square to 2 down.
The one-ball rule is not used in foursomes play at the Ryder Cup in the United States or the PGA Championship, which are both run by the PGA of America.
“It’s the player’s responsibility to know the rules,” Mickelson said, but he could have added that it is the responsibility of tournament rules officials as well.
The Presidents Cup match committee later released a statement admitting that while the match adjustment was correctly applied, the committee incorrectly advised the walking official in the group that Mickelson be disqualified from the hole. Under the rules, Mickelson should have been allowed to finish the hole, halving or even winning it, with the adjustment applied to the match standing thereafter.
Unfortunately for the United States, per the committee's statement: "Decision 34-2/6 of the Rules of Golf, the Committee is not allowed to have Phil go back and play in an attempt to correct the error. This is because once any player in the match plays a subsequent stroke, allowing a correction could potentially undermine the strategy already employed by both in the match in completing the hole."
“Phil made the mistake of violating the one-ball condition and we made the mistake of not telling him he could continue to play the hole,” PGA Tour vice president of rules and competition Mark Russell said.
The ruling seemed to baffle the competitors, with Mickelson saying, "I've never heard of that," on the following tee box. Keegan Bradley, not a member of the U.S. team but a former partner of Mickelson's in international play, tweeted his confusion.
After falling two holes down as a result of the incident, the Americans rallied, winning the ninth hole with a par, the 11th with a 12-foot birdie putt by Mickelson and No. 12 when Lefty holed out his approach from a fairway bunker. But the Internationals squared the match with a birdie by Day at the 15th hole and the game was halved.
“Phil made a huge mental error, and then they [the rule officials] compounded it a little bit,” U.S. captain Jay Haas said. “But if he hadn't been speeding, he wouldn't have got a ticket. So I don't have a problem with it.”