The birthday boy broke the rules on Saturday at the US Open and he did it all for the wrong reasons, writes Paul Gallagher
Phil Mickelson, what have you done? The act was bizarre and foolish, but under such sustained and extreme interrogation it first appeared like the releasing of a pressure valve. However, the explanation that followed was utterly inexcusable.
For at least three days the US Open field was beaten up by Shinnecock Hills. There was no hiding place. The USGA rolled the dice once more by setting up their playground right on the edge of playability. Lessons from 2004 were not heeded when greens at the same venue had to be hosed down to ensure one of the game’s Majors didn’t tip over into the farcical.
Those in the know insisted Shinnecock Hills was “set up for carnage” this year. They weren’t wrong, but few could have imagined the situation reaching such extremes. In all the years reporting on golf, I have never seen so much deliberation and trepidation over so many short putts, especially on the Saturday. These guys are the best players on the planet, yet absolutely nothing was a given – not even from 18 inches – until the ball dropped into the safety and darkness of the cup.
Forget about the waist-high fescue or cabbage lies in the rough, it was the upturned saucer greens that rolled like glass that left nerves frayed and some at the end of their tether.
Against such a stressful backdrop, Mickelson’s antics came at the par four 13thduring the third round. After his bogey putt ran past the hole, lefty made a clumsy run after his ball before it rolled down the hill and off the green and hit it back up the green while still moving.
At first it seemed like a moment of madness, like three days of torture on such treacherous greens had finally broken the five-time Major winner and smiling golden boy of American golf.
But no, Mickelson, who celebrated his 48thbirthday the same day, was fully aware of his actions. “If someone is offended I apologise, but toughen up. I know it’s a two-shot penalty [for hitting a moving ball]. I just didn’t feel like going back and forth,” said Mickelson, before digging even further.
“I’ve had multiple times where I’ve wanted to do that, I just finally did. It was meant to take advantage of the rules as best you can.”
Those precise words are almost worse than the action, which if taken in isolation or without explanation, might have been passed off as “dumb” from the goofy, wide-eyed smiling one.
But Mickelson’s words only fuelled the fire. Had he simply said, “for a moment there I lost my head, I don’t know what I was thinking”, the incident would surely have blown over, a heat of the moment reaction to a pressure situation.
Instead, it revealed a more sinister side to one of golf’s poster boys. Mickelson’s words brought his reputation into question. The premeditation and prescience of mind makes his actions a glaring abuse of the rules.
It did nobody any favours, least of all the USGA, who failed to nip it in the bud, especially when not disqualifying him under Rule 1-2 when a player wilfully deflects or stops a ball to gain a competitive advantage. Sympathy also goes to his playing partner Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who laughed it off as a “moment of madness”.
What Mickelson did made a mockery of the individual and his integrity; the tournament itself because he was not disqualified and also the officials who failed to take the appropriate and prompt stance. In any case, the greens were watered for the final round and the tournament ended all the better for it. Good golf was rewarded and errant shots were still costly – the way it should be.
Phil was asked why he did what he did on a crazy Saturday at the US Open and unfortunately the explanation sounded more sinister than the act.