SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Judge Smails and John Daly, please welcome Phil Mickelson to your club.
Golf’s golden boy has trademarked the jaw-dropping shot, but he joined the ranks of golf’s greatest numskulls in the third round of the U.S. Open. On the 13th green, he putted a ball; then, while it was still rolling, he ran from one side of the hole to the other to putt it again. He did so, he said, with the intent to incur a 2-stroke penalty. He did so, he said, to intentionally keep from logging an even higher score.
And he wasn’t disqualified. He got away with it.
He turned 48 on Saturday. He was serenaded on No. 1, No. 16 and No. 18. Happy birthday, indeed.
It’s one thing to massage the rules to get a better lie, the way Mickelson did at TPC Sugarloaf when he won the BellSouth Classic in 2006. It’s another thing to manipulate the rules and to rely on bad precedent to keep your score low.
With elegant audacity, Mickelson didn’t just admit his strategy, he bragged about it. Given the chance to plead insanity — he could have testified that Shinnecock Hills Golf Club had simply broken his spirit after 48 holes — Mickelson declined. Instead, he mounted this delicious defense: The rules entitled him to act like a two-bit, foot-wedging Sunday morning hacker. (My words, not his.)
Mickelson didn’t just say that he broke the rule with the sole intention of saving himself strokes, he said that he’d been planning the stunt for years.
“I might have saved a shot doing it the way I did,” Mickelson said. “I’ve had multiple times where I’ve wanted to do that. I just finally did.”
Did he ever. Mickelson had pushed his approach shot beyond the green, hit his third shot off the front edge then chipped to 18 feet above the hole and downwind, which matters on greens like these. His bogey putt went low, didn’t stop, and was picking up speed when he jogged past the hole, caught up to the ball and knocked it back toward the hole.
"At that time I didn't feel like going back-and-forth and hitting the same shot over. I took the two-shot penalty and moved on… I don't mean any disrespect."
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) June 16, 2018
“I was going back and forth,” Mickelson said. “I could still be out there, potentially.”
Daly’s actions caused a hubbub. Mickelson’s peers were not pleased, either.
When told what happened after his round, Aaron Baddeley recoiled and wrinkled his nose. That was exactly the right reaction. Everything about this stank.
“It seemed unlike Phil. It’s on the fringes of … like … it’s definitely hard to fathom that you’d consider doing that,” Baddeley told the Inquirer. “I wouldn’t even consider it. I wouldn’t think it’s in the ballpark of consideration.”
Baddeley stopped short of saying Mickelson disrespected the game, or that Mickelson acted outside the letter or the spirit of the law, but he was stunned not only that Mickelson did it but also that Mickelson had been considering doing it for years:
“It’s something you see if somebody just snaps,” Baddeley said. “For him to say he’s thought about doing it before is hard to fathom.”
That’s because it’s dirty pool, and Mickelson knows it. That’s why, after an almost universal outcry from the assembled press, Mickelson called USGA CEO Mike Davis on Saturday night and, according to Davis, asked if he should have been disqualified.
Davis should have said yes. He, his committee and Mickelson were wrong.
The rule book is clear that hitting a ball in play earns a 2-stroke penalty. To anyone watching, it was just as clear that Mickelson acted with the intent to limit damage, which brings into play a clause attached to Rule 1-2, which covers a ball that is in play:
“In the case of a serious breach of Rule 1-2, the Committee may impose a penalty of disqualification. … A player is deemed to have committed a serious breach of Rule 1-2 if the Committee considers that the action taken in breach of this Rule has allowed him … [to] gain a significant advantage.”
The USGA rules committee immediately chose to apply Rule 14-5, which concerns a ball in motion, but which specifically refers officials to 1-2 in a case such as Mickelson’s: Ball purposely deflected or stopped by player, partner or caddie – see Rule 1-2).
The USGA insisted that Mickelson had not committed a “serious breach.” However, had the putt of the moving ball gone in it would have been Mickelson’s sixth stroke, which would have netted him an eight with the penalty he expected. That would have been a two-stroke advantage — significant by any measure.
How much more serious a breach could there have been?
Furthermore, Mickelson believed that he “could still be out there.” So, the possible eight, or his eventual 10, was, in his mind, significantly more acceptable than the alternative.
The rules committee addressed the infraction after they learned of Mickelson’s statements, and clarified that they chose to enforce Rule 14-5, which didn’t believe Mickelson made a stroke at the ball. That, of course, was absurd; Mickelson admitted that he tried to make the putt.
But it’s Phil, in New York, at the U.S. Open. Davis wasn’t going to kneecap Mickelson, no matter how much gas-lighting was necessary.
Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth all missed the cut. Mickelson might have played himself out of contention — he was 10-over after the hole, finished 11-over for the third round and stood at 17-over and in 65th place — but the hosts weren’t going to kick him off Shinny, and he knew it.
It’s unclear if Mickelson was aware of the possibility of disqualification, but he probably did. Daly got away with a similar infraction at Pinehurst No. 2 during the 1999 U.S. Open, when he smacked a putt on No. 8 that was rolling back toward him. Daly was hyper-popular then, but Daly should have been DQ’ed, too. Two wrongs, folks.
Saturday’s surreal disregard for propriety won’t dent Mickelson’s popularity — not after his tone-deaf comments about taxes and an investigation into insider trading. His profile is bulletproof, and he knows that, too.
“I don’t mean it disrespectfully. If people take it that way, that’s not on me,” Mickelson said. “If somebody’s offended by that, I apologize to them but you know, toughen up, because this is not meant that way.”
You heard him, all you golfers who play by the rules. Toughen up.
This episode will become part of the complicated fabric of Mickelson’s legacy, but not every fan will care, and neither will every player. His playing partner, affable Andrew “Beef” Johnston, didn’t seem to mind, even as he watched it.
“I looked at him like, ‘Is this actually happening?’” Johnston said afterward, laughing, still incredulous. “But honestly, I said to him, ‘I can’t help but laugh. That’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.’ I’ve never seen anything like it.”
No one has — at least, not in the context of a premeditated, strategic ploy.
“I should have done it a couple of times at Augusta on 15, when the ball would go off into the hazard,” he said, referring to the par-5 whose treacherous green sometimes deposits putts into a protecting pond. “That would have saved me a shot or two back then.”
That would have sent the greenjackets scrambling, for sure. They wouldn’t have disqualified him, either. After all, he’s Phil Mickelson, and he just demonstrated a new trick play.
Call it the “Phil Special.”