When caught reading the Bible, early 20th century comedian W.C. Fields replied, "I'm looking for loopholes."
If only Phil Mickelson had a similar sense of humor about things. Mickelson took some heat last week for playing a 20-year-old Ping Eye2 wedge to circumvent the PGA Tour's new rule limiting the sharpness of grooves on irons and wedges. The intent of the rule change is to place more of a premium on accuracy. With softer grooves, players create less spin on shots hit from the rough, so bomb-and-gougers will presumably suffer while more accurate drivers benefit. The pre-1990 Ping wedges are exempt from these regulations because of a lawsuit settlement, so Mickelson took an old Ping wedge, changed its loft and sole, and put it into play at Torrey Pines.
For what it's worth, the new groove rule could hurt Mickelson's game more than most because he's never been an accurate driver (he ranked in 179th in driving accuracy in 2009) and his short-game wizardry with the 64-degree wedge will be limited. (According to CBS analyst Peter Kostis, without sharp grooves the ball slides up the face inconsistently and launches higher, making the 64-degree wedge useless.)
Mickelson found a loophole and decided to exploit it, an act with a long if not honorable tradition. He'd been a vocal opponent of the groove rule because he believed it created a confusing standard and that it was too costly for manufacturers. What really upset him, though, was the USGA's rejection last year of a new Callaway prototype as not conforming under the new groove rules. Mickelson disagreed with the ruling and gave the USGA's techinical director an earful at the 2009 Barclays.
Think of Mickelson's loopholed Ping wedge as a re-lofted middle finger (about 64 degrees) to the Tour and the USGA. That's his basic position, and he should have stuck with it in the face of completely telegraphed criticism from other players. (Before Scott McCarron said Mickelson was "cheating" by using the old wedge at Torrey Pines, prominent players including British Open champ Stewart Cink criticized John Daly and Dean Wilson for using the Ping wedges in Hawaii.)
Instead, we got Mickelson at his too-smart-for-his-own-good worst. "It's not our job to interpret rules, it's our job to understand if our club is OK to play with or not," said Eddie Haskell in a KMPG cap. Mickelson's playing dumb and acting surprised by criticism from McCarron and others is not credible, his blameless victim act is unseemly, and his implied threat to sue McCarron for defamation is unmanly if not unhinged. (Our court system is beleaguered enough without having to get involved when Mickelson's feelings are hurt.)
Mickelson is behaving like this groove rule change was delivered by some distant and uncaring god, rather than something supported by his fellow PGA Tour pros. Here's what Tiger Woods said about the new groove rule when it was announced last summer: "I think it's great. We've had plenty of time to make our adjustments. We've known for over a couple years now what this decision was going to be, when it was going to come down, and we've had plenty of time to make our adjustments." Woods added that, "All the companies have been testing and getting ready for this, and the guys will make the changes. It'll be interesting seeing guys catching flyers and not being able to spin the ball back out of the rough ... short-siding yourself is obviously going to pay a little more of a price."
Lee Westwood, who is sponsored by Ping and will likely be a factor in the 2010 majors, is pointedly not playing the old wedges, even though he's not a fan of the groove change.
"Pre-1990 golf club grooves are illegal," Westwood said at the Qatar Masters last week. "I've got a set of them but you know, if you're going to win, you win fairly. It would almost feel like bending the rules, not breaking rules but certainly bending them a long way."
If Mickelson wanted to make an honorable protest to the groove change, he should sit out. That's a move that would get some attention and cause the Tour to re-think its rule change. But Mickelson wanted to flout the rule and still be a "good guy," so he provided all the people who think he's a phony with Exhibit A.
Nobody knows how this groove thing will play out. Club manufacturers smell blood in the water after the PGA Tour's mealy-mouthed defense of Mickelson, and now reports say that Padraig Harrington might put an old Ping wedge in play. If Harrington switches, many more will follow, and if a significant number of players are playing re-worked 20-year-old wedges, then the rule change will be a joke.
We know two things for certain, though: Mickelson will still be the biggest star on the Tiger-less Tour and a fan favorite, as he should be with his tireless autograph sessions and dashing, go-for-broke playing style. And no one will ever wonder why some of his fellow players don't like him.