SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Phil Mickelson made us rub our eyes.
Running after his ball on the 13th green Saturday at the U.S. Open, to putt it while it was still moving, to prevent his ball from running off the lightning-quick green, made us wonder if we could believe our eyes.
Did the USGA finally push Lefty beyond the snapping point?
Andrew “Beef” Johnston wondered if maybe it did.
“I think it’s just a moment of madness,” Johnston said.
It was the only explanation that rang true in the aftermath, because nothing Mickelson said passed the smell test.
Johnston, Mickelson’s fellow competitor, had a close-up look at Mickelson’s breach of Rule 14-5, “Playing moving ball.”
If you believe Mickelson, there was no madness in what he did. In fact, he thought it was the smart play, quick thinking so he could put up the best score possible on the hole, which ended up being a 10 after the two-stroke penalty he intentionally incurred.
“It was meant to take advantage of the rules as best you can,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson has a reputation for wanting to prove he’s the smartest guy in the room, but even if what he said is true, this play was even more dunder-headed than the one he made on the 18th tee at Winged Foot in 2006. That’s when he used driver to knock his tee shot off a hospitality tent to blow a one-shot lead and leave himself with one of his six second-place finishes in this championship.
Saturday at Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson should have dusted off the line he used at Winged Foot.
“I am such an idiot,” he said back then.
Anybody who knows Mickelson’s history at the U.S. Open knows the frustration he endured at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, when he felt like the USGA unfairly treated groups playing the burned-out seventh green in the final round. Mickelson complained again coming into this week about how unfair it was that the green got syringed for some groups and not others.
“I think it’s a great hole until the USGA gets a hold of it,” he said.
So when Mickelson so brazenly ran to putt his moving ball on the 13th green Saturday, reasonable people believed he was disgusted again. That he must be making a statement. That he was fed up with the USGA blowing another setup with unfair conditions.
Not so, Mickelson insisted.
He said he believed his ball was going to run all the way off the green, but he knew he could intentionally hit a moving ball for a two-shot penalty and come out ahead.
“I know the rules,” Mickelson said. “I’ve had multiple times where I’ve wanted to do that, I just finally did.”
There’s knowing the rules, and there’s manipulating the rules.
There are the black-and-white rules, and there’s “The Spirit of the Game.”
You’ll find an explanation on Page 1 of The Rules of Golf.
“The game relies on the integrity of the individual to show consideration for other players and to abide by the Rules,” the provision states. “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.”
Mickelson’s penalty could have resulted in disqualification if the USGA had interpreted his actions as a violation of Rule 1-2, “Exerting influence.” That rule forbids a player from taking any action to influence the position or movement of the ball. That rule allows disqualification if the violation is deemed a “serious breach.”
Former USGA executive director David Fay wondered aloud during the Fox telecast whether “conduct unbecoming” might apply.
“I would have lobbied for disqualification,” he said. Mickelson also could have been DQ’d under Rule 33-7. That gives the championship committee broad discretion to disqualify a player in “exceptional individual cases.”
USGA CEO Mike Davis said such discretion is for an “outright, egregious situation,” something with more malicious intent.
“Rule 33-7 is rarely used, wouldn’t be appropriate in this case,” Davis said.
USGA senior managing director John Bodenhamer said Mickelson would have had to purposely “deflect or stop” the ball for Rule 1-2 to apply.
“Our Rules Committee mobilized quickly and unanimously decided this situation is specifically and explicitly covered under Rule 14-5,” Bodenhamer said.
Something can be legal and still be wrong.
That’s what the “Spirit of the Game” tells us.
What Mickelson did was wrong, because it showed such disrespect and disregard for the rest of the field. If he were in contention, would he have done what he did to take advantage of the rules? Imagine the outrage.
Even though he wasn’t in contention, Mickelson created such a spectacle, it detracted from the larger event. The U.S. Open was all about him on Saturday.
Whether he was angry and trying to make a statement of protest, or using the rules to his advantage, didn’t really matter. He knew this breach would create a furor. That mattered. He knew the controversy that has dogged the USGA’s questionable setups in recent history would ignite anew.
“I don’t mean any disrespect,” Mickelson said. “If you’re taking it that way, that’s not on me ... If somebody is offended by that, I apologize to them, but toughen up, because this is not meant that way. It’s simply that I just wanted to get on to the next hole and didn’t see that happening at the time. I’ll gladly take my two strokes and move on.”
Mickelson may have moved on, but the U.S. Open grinded to a halt. The spectacle he created put the integrity of the rules and his own motivation into question.
Mickelson has built up a lot of goodwill over the years. While this may not bankrupt his account with the legion of fans who love him, it will diminish it.