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You probably think Phil Mickelson’s triple bogey came from a bad decision. Think again

Phil Mickelson, final round, 2012 Masters
BRIAN SNYDER / Reuters
Phil Mickelson made a triple bogey six on the fourth hole, which included this right-handed swing from the trees.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A triple-bogey on the fourth hole cost Phil Mickelson his fourth Masters title on Sunday, and I know what you’re thinking. It was Phil being Phil.
 
I say no. It was a grandstand railing being a grandstand railing.
 
You gotta understand my feeling about grandstand railings. They suck. They’ve got no place in golf. It was a grandstand railing that cost Jean Van de Velde the 1999 British Open. Holding a three-stroke lead with one hole to play, the Frenchman very smartly decided that the safe play was to smack his 2-iron approach toward the right greenside grandstand, figuring he’d get a free drop if it went into the crowd. But instead of braining a Brit, Van de Velde’s ball struck a railing and ricocheted back across the Barry Burn. He went on to make a triple-bogey 7 and lose to Paul Lawrie in a three-man playoff.
 
Now a railing has deprived America’s most popular golfer and his Philophile fans of another emotionally satisfying march up the 18th fairway of Augusta National. Trailing then-leader Louis Oosthuizen by two on Sunday, Mickelson had only one thing on his mind on the tee of the 240-yard par-3 fourth: Stay left.
 
“Where the pin was was the hardest par on the golf course,” he said after his round. “So tactically what I try to do there is aim left of the pin and try to hit either the left edge or the bunker or [hit it] just left of the bunker, where I’m chipping into the slope. Usually I can get that up-and-down and make par. And if it goes into the grandstand, no problem.
 
“Unfortunately, it hit the railing --”
 
Yeah, and the railing -- an unfeeling hunk of iron with the personality of a soda straw -- smacked Mickelson’s ball into the dense shrubbery behind the green. After deciding that taking an unplayable lie penalty was untenable (because he didn’t want to go back to the tee “and play the hardest shot again,” and because he couldn’t drop his ball anywhere that would allow for a backswing), he played two shots right-handed with an upside-down iron. The ball moved two feet on his first try. The ball nearly hit his shin on the second, stopping on a trampled patch of gallery ground. Phil then attempted one of his patented lob shots off the dried-mud surface, but his ball plunged into the bunker he had hoped to hit from the tee.
 
All because his tee ball hit a railing instead of the soft, yielding flesh of a spectator.
 
If you do the math, you’ll know that Mickelson got up and down from the bunker. But his triple-bogey six, coupled with Oosthuizen’s historic double-eagle on No. 2, produced an unusual six-stroke swing. Also unusual was the fact that it was Mickelson’s second triple-bogey of the tournament. (He lost a ball on the 10th hole in round two.) As a rule, you don’t win majors when you make triples every other round.
 
Now, while I can’t read your mind, I know what you’d say if we were out somewhere, maybe leaning on a rail behind your favorite bar. You’d say, “Phil’s got a history of this stuff. Remember how he drove it onto a hospitality tent on the final hole at Winged Foot, handing the 2006 U.S. Open to Geoff Ogilvy?”
 
But that was entirely different. Lefty didn’t turn to Bones that day and say, “I want to sling a hook down the left side, but if I land it on that big, white tent, that’s almost as good.” No, his final drive at Winged Foot was simply a bad drive. He took the blame for it afterwards, saying, “I’m such an idiot.” And another million people joined the Phil Mickelson Fan Club.
 
Here’s the point I’m making. Mickelson didn’t lose the 2012 Masters because he choked or made a dumb decision. He lost because he was unlucky. He lost because a hunk of metal that was not even a feature of the golf course dispatched his ball to the azaleas. Let the record show that Mickelson made three birdies the rest of the way (despite making nothing) to card a final-round 72 and finish T-3, two strokes behind a couple of guys who didn’t hit railings.
 
“It happens,” he said, possibly thinking of Van de Velde. “I look at the triple on 10, that was obviously a bad swing. That was a terrible swing, it went way in the junk. But I wouldn’t have done anything different on 4. That’s strategically where you have to play it to that pin.”
 
To sum up, did Phil go off the rails? No, the rails went rogue.
 
If you think otherwise, you’re wrong.

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