Phil Mickelson snapped in round three of the 118th United States Open at Shinnecock Hills. The world watched as one of the most respected players in the game did the unthinkable and his actions created a storm of controversy.
Phil Aickin on how the rules were applied to Mickelson's double hit.
The United States Open is always an intriguing watch. The USGA and their Executive Director, Mike Davis, prepare a golf course that is right on the edge of playability. They say they want to test every facet of a player's game, including ball striking, short game, course management and mental game. They say they are not fixated on par as the winning score, but more fixated on each individual hole being as testing as possible. It all adds up to potential disaster if the weather forecast deviates providing more wind or sun to dry the course and greens surface.
Shinnecock Hills is one of the best courses in the world but when hosting recent US Opens it has been remembered for all the wrong reasons. In 2004 the course was close to unplayable over the weekend with the final round scoring average an incredible nine over par 79. Players could not keep iron shots, chips and even putts on the par-3 seventh green causing officials to apply water between groups on the final day. At this year's championship, there was nearly a repeat of this during round three when some pin placements proved to be too close to fall off areas and good shots were no longer being rewarded. In fact, they were being penalised with the ball finishing in places where bogey became a good score and double bogeys were common.
A course set up on such an edge causes frustration but there is still no excuse for what took place on the 13th green in the final round where Mickelson deliberately made a stroke at a moving ball, resembling field hockey, rather than golf.
From a rules perspective he was saved by the action of striking the ball, meeting the definition of a stroke, which involves the forward movement of the club. Officials were then able to refer to Rule 14-5, which states that a player must not make a stroke at a moving ball, with the penalty being two strokes. If he had taken action to stop the ball, Rule 1-2 would have been applied which relates to exerting influence on the movement of a ball resulting in a significant advantage. For this breach the penalty is disqualification.
Mickelson could have saved himself this embarrassment by showing an even better understanding of the Rules of Golf. Under Rule 28, Unplayable ball, a player may deem his ball unplayable anywhere on the course, so if he didn't like where his ball finished, which was likely to be off the green and behind a bunker, he could take the unplayable and place the ball within two club lengths of where his original putt was. Now that would have looked clever.
Instead, Mickelson snapped. The many years of US Open frustration and the baked golf course, which he had pleaded to the USGA prior to the event to avoid, resulted in a brain explosion. His reputation for many has been shattered. He finally apologised, but it took him four days to recover from his anger and frustration.
Was the two-stroke penalty assessed by the USGA correct? Yes.
Was this action within the spirit of fair competition? In my opinion, No.
Like Oakmont in 2016, could this result in a change to rule 14-5, providing an option for a committee to regard this type of action as a serious breach and therefore disqualification? Perhaps.
Should Mickelson have withdrawn after he realised the impact of his actions? Personally, I think he should have been encouraged to. He could have quickly repaired the damage to his reputation and the negative impact on the game would have settled down.
I do like the best golfers being challenged by tough conditions, but the USGA need to back off a little and allow for changing conditions. Players less frustrated will result in less controversy and more focus on the winner and the positive test of the golf course.
Phil Mickelson with his caddie Tim Mickelson.