There was a good deal of confusion on Saturday afternoon after the embarrassing scene Phil Mickelson created on the 13th green during the third round of the U.S. Open.
Here are two things that are crystal clear: First, Mickelson embarrassed himself with his sprint, spin and putt while his bogey putt was still rolling. Second, the USGA, already having a bad day because of the way Shinnecock Hills was set up, embarrassed itself further by not disqualifying Mickelson the instant he smugly told the media his act was intentional.
One of the (many) problems with the Rules of Golf is that they can often be spun to fit whatever outcome the officials in charge want to create.
Mickelson’s defenders—and they are legion—will say he was reacting in frustration to the set-up of the golf course and who could blame him? And yet, 66 players teed it up on Saturday and completed 18 holes. Only one pulled the stunt Mickelson pulled.
Add to that the fact that Mickelson, after spending almost 20 minutes in the scoring area crafting what he was going to say to the media, came out and said he did it on purpose. If there was any doubt about whether he should be disqualified, it should have ended at that moment.
The first rule of golf, Rule 1-1, describes how the game is to be played from tee to green. Rule 1-2 details several things a player may NOT do while playing the game. This is what 1-2 speaks to: “Exerting influence on movement of the ball or altering physical conditions.”
The applicable part of the rule here is as follows: “A player must not take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play … ”
If you stop a ball while rolling and then play it in the opposite direction, how is that not taking an action to influence the movement of the ball? Mickelson stopped the ball.
The rule also says that the committee may disqualify a player if he commits a “serious breach” of the rule. Breaking the rule on purpose, and then in affect claiming you did it because you were being smart, would certainly seem to be a serious breach.
The USGA’s reason for not applying 1-2 is an exception to the rule which reads as follows: “An action expressly permitted or expressly prohibited by another rule is subject to that other rule, not Rule 1-2.”
According to the USGA, Rule 14-5, which says, “a player must not make a stroke while a ball is moving,” overrides Rule 1-2. Only it doesn’t, because 14-5 does not expressly permit what Mickelson did or expressly prohibit what he did. It simply is an add-on to the penalty he committed by changing the direction of the ball.
One last piece of rules mumbo-jumbo: Rule 33-7 is the catch-all here. It gives the committee the wherewithal to disqualify a player it if believes a serious breach has been committed but also to not disqualify a player if it believes there are mitigating circumstances.
It was 33-7 that Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley, then the chairman of the championship committee for the Masters, fell back on in 2013 in deciding not to disqualify Tiger Woods for signing an incorrect scorecard after the second round that year.
Woods, as most people remember, took an improper drop after hitting his third shot in the water (bouncing it off the flagstick) on the 15th hole during the second round of the tournament. Ridley was first made aware of the possible violation after former USGA and PGA Tour rules official David Eger phoned another tour rules official, Mickey Bradley, to tell him he believed Woods might have taken a bad drop. Bradley passed the information to Ridley and long-time rules official Mark Russell. Ridley looked at the tape and decided there wasn’t a problem.
As a result, no one spoke to Woods about the drop before he signed his scorecard. When Woods told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi that he had moved back two yards from the spot where he had hit his initial shot, it was clear he’d violated the drop rule.
Ridley became aware of what Woods had said late that night and told Woods on Saturday morning he had to add two shots to his score. But he did not disqualify him for signing for a wrong score because, in his judgment, it was the committee’s fault (his) for not talking to him before he signed his card.
Ridley was both right and wrong. Someone should have spoken to Woods—it’s called preventative officiating—before he signed his card. But it is also every player’s responsibility to know the rules and, if unsure, to ask for help. Woods did neither. He should have been disqualified.
Rules officials make mistakes, too. In 2010, when Dustin Johnson hit his tee shot into one of Whistling Straits faux bunkers on the 72nd hole of the championship, David Price, the walking rules official with his group should have reminded him that, under the local rule, he was in a bunker even if it had been walked through all week and had garbage lying in several spots.
Price later said that Johnson had asked about the rule earlier in the round and also said, “all he had to do was ask me,” and he would have told him he was in a bunker.
Wrong. Johnson was in the heat of trying to win a major championship and when he asked Price to move the crowd to give him a clear shot, all Price had to do was say, ‘You’ve got it Dustin and remember, that’s a bunker you’re in.’
Preventative officiating. It happens all the time in other sports, officials reminding players of a rule to be sure they don’t break it.
Mickelson’s situation on Saturday was different. He knew he’d violated a rule the instant he raced after his putt to flag it down. He clearly wasn’t embarrassed or non-plussed by his actions, and his explanation was classic Mickelson “I’m the smartest guy in the room” stuff.
Actually, if he was that smart, he would have declared the ball unplayable after it stopped rolling and moved it two-club lengths in a direction that would have given him an easier putt or chip, or played the ball from its previous spot on the green.
Beyond that, his claim that he was trying to “take advantage of the rules as best you can” made it clear he was making a mockery of what was going on. Defenders will point out that players in all sports break rules when it is to their advantage—pass interference to avoid a touchdown; fouling a player about to dunk; taking down a skater in open ice—you name it. There are two differences: First, there are specific penalties for those violations but nothing in the rules about disqualification, except perhaps if officials believe there was intent to injure. Second, golf prides itself on being different, on players not breaking rules intentionally and, often, calling penalties on themselves.
Mickelson broke a rule and said he did it intentionally. It should have been a no-brainer for the USGA to send him home.
The argument that some have made that disqualifying him after first telling him the penalty was two shots would be “double jeopardy” is doubly silly. Just as circumstances changed at Augusta when Woods said he moved two-yards back; just as the very same USGA informed Dustin Johnson it intended to penalized him at Oakmont on Sunday afternoon after he had initially been told he wouldn’t be penalized when his ball moved on the fifth green; the USGA could have said it believed there had been a “serious breach” after Mickelson’s post round comments.
To make matters worse, the USGA put out a further statement Sunday morning saying, “Rule 1-2 does not apply in this situation because Mickelson made a stroke at the ball as opposed to another act to deflect or stop the ball in motion, which are the acts covered by rule 1-2.”
He STOPPED a ball that HE said was going to roll off the green and THEN made a stroke at the ball. He violated 1-2 first and then 14-5.
Worst of all, the USGA let him get away with it. A two-shot penalty when you finish the day 14 shots behind the leaders is hardly a serious penalty.
In the past, when players have embarrassed themselves or the sport at a U.S. Open, they have been TOLD to write a letter of apology to the host club. Dave Hill was told to write a letter after his “cow pasture,” comments at Hazeltine National in 1970, and John Daly was told to write a letter after he stopped a ball as it was rolling back to him on Sunday at Pinehurst in 1999. At the very least, the USGA should demand that Mickelson write a letter of apology to the membership at Shinnecock and it should be made public.
In all, this was a bad week for Mickelson. It was a worse week for the USGA.