SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” and Phil Mickelson smiled and high-fived and signed autographs, and I would have watched longer but I had to change my shoes. It’s been a long time since I stepped in anything that deep. The smell from it will linger.
Mickelson had just pulled a stunt that would be fine at your local muni. It was not fine at the U.S. Open. On the 13th hole in Saturday’s third round, when he was effectively out of the tournament but still stuck playing in it, Mickelson did something astounding. He hit a putt past the hole, sending it tumbling down a slope, then raced to putt the ball back before it stopped rolling. You don’t need to know the difference between a gap wedge and a lob wedge to know that’s illegal.
It was dumb and it was reckless, but it seemed silly at first. As his playing partner, Andrew Johnston, said later: “I looked at him, like, ‘Is this actually happening?’ I said, ‘Sorry, but I can’t help but laugh at that. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.’ I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Then Phil spoke.
And what he said was: “It’s my understanding of the rules. I’ve had multiple times where I wanted to do that. I just finally did it.”
And: “No question, it was gonna come down in the same spot [as a previous shot] and go in the bunker. I wasn’t gonna have a shot. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to save a shot or whatnot, but I know it’s a two-stroke penalty.”
Asked if he disrespected the game, he said: “It’s certainly not meant that way. It’s meant to take advantage of the rules as best as you can in that situation. It would just go back and forth and I’d gladly take the two shots over continuing that display.”
And: “I could still be out there, potentially. I took two shots and got to play the next hole. “
Mickelson should be disqualified, and that’s not a hot or angry take. When you distill his actions and his explanation down to their essence, this is what you get: He knowingly violated the rules to save himself from a lousy score. If you don’t kick a guy out of the tournament for that, when do you do it?
Golf’s rules are not like the rules of most sports. LeBron James does not call fouls on himself, and Max Scherzer does not call balls and strikes. They don’t do that because, while they are fine fellows, we don’t trust them to do it. We have referees and umpires to keep people from breaking rules so they can win.
Golf is not like that. The officials are not there to keep the golfers from cheating. They are there to help the golfers follow the rules, which is what the golfers are supposed to want. Rules may get broken—it happens all the time—but the intent is supposed to be pure.
Go through golf history and you will see plenty of examples of this. T.C. Chen did not mean to hit the ball twice in one swing at the U.S. Open, but he did and he was penalized. Tiger Woods did not realize he was taking an illegal drop at the 2013 Masters (he bragged about what he thought was a legal act afterwards) but he did and he was penalized. Mickelson knows this as well as anybody. When he was in thick rough Thursday, he asked an official if he was allowed to do anything to make sure he could see his ball from his stance. The answer was no.
The funny thing about Mickelson’s answers is that he actually didn’t know what the penalty was. He knew what he did was illegal, sure. But Johnston says Mickelson told him as he came off the 13th, “I don’t know what score that is or what happens now.” Mickelson then started speaking to a rules official.
From there, Mickelson really went to work. Nobody has ever been better at spinning the ball out of a bunker or an answer in a press conference, and nobody has ever been more willing to try either. Mickelson milked the crowd for all the love it could provide, then went into sign his scorecard, a process that probably required three media-relations people and a handful of lawyers. He was in there for so long that the group behind him signed before he got out.
Mickelson finally emerged to talk to Fox’s Curtis Strange, which was interesting—Strange is exactly the kind of old-school hard-ass who probably wanted to yank Phil by the collar and scream at him for disrespecting the game. Strange asked the questions he could ask in every conceivable way. Slick Phil slithered out of all of them. Amazingly, the interview ended without a head-butt.
Mickelson clearly made a tactical decision to say he did this on purpose, knew the rule and was not being disrespectful. But in doing so, he inadvertently pleaded guilty to a far bigger golf crime. You can’t break a rule to save yourself strokes. Phil would never stand for that in one of his Tuesday gambling games, so how can the USGA stomach it now?
When Mickelson spoke, The USGA had already issued a ruling: It was a two-stroke penalty. The organization decided that Mickelson had broken rule 14-5: “A player must not make a stroke at his ball while it is moving.”
But that is the wrong rule to enforce. The right one is Rule 1-2, which says a player must not “take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play.” A “serious breach,” according to this rule, “has allowed him or another player to gain a significant advantage.” And the penalty for a serious breach is disqualification.
That’s what Phil Mickelson did here Saturday.
His words, not mine:
“I just took two shots and moved on, cause I didn’t want to keep hitting it back and forth.”
That’s cheating. It’s cheating when you have no chance to win the tournament, and it’s not the kind of cheating that makes you reevaluate the man’s career. But it’s still cheating.
Happy Birthday, Phil. Go celebrate somewhere else.