Let’s start off by saying I really don't CARE that Phil Mickelson chased down his golf ball as it rolled away from him and did his silly double-putt miniature golf move on it. I don’t think it was an insult to golf. I don’t think it has any bearing on his career legacy. I actually thought it was funny. I’m not some golf traditionalist so it didn’t matter to me on that level, but your mileage may vary. That's fine too.
What fascinated me -- what, brilliant readers probably know always fascinates me in such situations -- is the rule. I love rules. I think about them all the time.
Mickelson, in trying to explain away his bizarre move, explained that he was trying to take a two-stroke penalty, trying to take advantage of a loophole in golf’s rulebook rather than just saying that in the heat of the moment and in the blur a bad round he acted out of frustration.
I don’t believe for one minute he was taking advantage of a rule ... or even KNEW precisely the rule.
And that’s because, after looking hard at the rulebook, it’s clear the USGA made the wrong ruling. They hit Mickelson with a two-stroke penalty. They should have disqualified him or at least thought hard about it. They gave Mickelson a pass. That's fine. But there was no loophole. You can’t blame this one on the rules.
Let’s go back to the moment. Phil Mickelson was struggling terribly, as many did on Saturday at Shinnecock. We can talk about the U.S. Open setup later if you want … some love watching golfers miss 20-foot putts for par all day long. I don’t. I turned it off halfway through. I have plenty of neighbors I can watch make bogeys and double bogeys.
But Mickelson specifically was struggling and on the 13th hole he was putting for bogey when he smacked the ball past the hole. He hit it way too hard and offline and the ball was rolling away -- it was clearly going to roll off the green, perhaps into a bunker, and Mickelson flipped out. He ran after the ball and purposely smacked it back toward the hole while it was still rolling, the sort of thing (as many have said) you will see a kid at a miniature golf course do. Mickelson almost made that deflection putt (it lipped out) and then he missed another putt before finally making a quadruple-bogey.
This is not entirely unprecedented -- John Daly, for instance, has done this -- but it is certainly unprecedented for a player as respected as Phil Mickelson at a tournament as beloved as the U.S. Open.
Mickelson laughed nervously at what he had done. He would later say he knew that it would be ruled a two-stroke penalty -- that this was part of his calculation -- but his playing partner Andrew Johnston, who most people call “Beef,” made it clear that Mickelson had no idea.
“I seen the ball go past, he ran and he hit it … I looked at him and I was like, ‘Is this really happening?’" Beef said. "But honestly, I looked at him and I said, ‘Sorry, I can’t help but laugh at that. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.’ … He said, ‘I don’t know what score that is. I don’t know what happens now.’”
Mickelson didn’t know. And the reason he didn’t know is because everything would depend on how the USGA ruled.
As it turns out the USGA used rule 14.5, titled “Playing Moving Ball.” This reads simply:
“A player must not make a stroke at his ball while it is moving.”
It then gives various exceptions to the rule -- ball falling off a tee, ball moving in water, etc. -- that would not apply to Mickelson. The penalty for breach of the rule in stroke play is two strokes. This seems plenty straightforward, Mickelson hit the ball while it was moving, the USGA penalized Mickelson two shots, he said thank you, and later Mickelson said that he purposely hit the ball while it was moving because he was willing to take the two-shot penalty.
And all that’s well and good -- sports are filled with people purposely taking penalties, whether intentional fouls or intentional walks or grabbing a receiver before the ball is thrown to avoid getting beat. My friend Tom Tango, who is not a golf fan, wanted to know what was different about this than, say, the NBA hack-a-Shaq strategy of purposely fouling a poor free-throw shooter.
The difference is this: This wasn't the right rule. Yes, 14.5 deals with what happens when you play a moving ball. But it deals with what happens when a player ACCIDENTALLY hits a moving ball. In parentheses on the bottom -- as sort of an afterthought probably because they figure nobody would actually do this -- there’s a very specific addendum:
(Ball purposely deflected or stopped by player, partner or cadde -- see Rule 1-2).
There is absolutely no doubt that Phil Mickelson purposely deflected the ball while it was moving. No doubt whatsoever. And even if there WAS any doubt (and there wasn't), Mickelson confirmed after the round that he deflected the ball on purpose. Rule 1-2 was the correct rule.
The penalty for breaching Rule 1-2 is the same -- two strokes -- but with this rule there’s an asterisk.
*In the case of a serious breach of Rule 1-2, the Committee may impose a penalty of disqualification.
So what is a serious breach? Well, now we’re dealing with some significant subjectivity. A serious breach is an action that allows player to gain a “significant advantage.” So what does that mean? Is trying to save one shot a “significant advantage?” Is wanting to just get the hole over with and not play it out a “significant advantage?” Is the desire to simply not walk down the hill and hit the same shot you just hit a “significant advantage?”
I would argue all of them are significant advantages, yes.
Mitchel Lichtman made an intriguing case on Twitter against this being a significant advantage:
His point is that if Mickelson chipped back up and two-putted, he would score the same as the penalty and, so, didn't gain a significant advantage. But this doesn't hold water because this suggests the rule should be tailored for Phil Mickelson and people as good as him. If it was ME on the green and I did that, it would clearly be a HUGE advantage to hit the ball while it was rolling away down the hill. There's no chance whatsoever I could make three from down there.
I don't think you can make an argument that the rulebook is different for Phil Mickelson than it is for someone not as good as Phil Mickelson.
In any case, it's clear the USGA HAD to rule on this. The very USGA rules that guide them demand that they put what Mickelson did under the microscope. Did he purposely cheat to gain an advantage? If so -- disqualified. End of story. If not -- two-stroke penalty.
Instead, Mike Davis of the USGA explained why they used Rule 14.5 in a way that, frankly, is insulting to our intelligence.
‘We clarified that, ‘Phil, you actually made a stroke at a moving ball, and so we have to apply that rule (14.5),’” Davis said. “That’s different than if he had deliberately just stopped the ball or whacked it another direction or something like that.”
What? Are the rest of us just losing our minds. Whacking the ball in the other direction is EXACTLY what Phil Mickelson did. I mean we saw it right? Replays were available right? Is this one of those “who are you going to believe me or your lying eyes” scenarios?
The shame of it is: Golf treasures its rules more than any other sport. The is was very clearly on the books here, it is easily understood and plainly applicable. Mickelson can go around uttering nonsense about using the rules to his advantage, but the reality is that he lost his cool and purposely broke one of golf’s cardinal rules. It’s not a capital offense. It doesn’t brand him with a scarlet letter. Beef is right: It’s kind of hilarious.
But it should have disqualified Mickelson from the U.S. Open.