2:23 | Tour & News
Phil Mickelson and the interpretation of rules
Mickelson's behavior on 13 touched off a firestorm of discussions about interpretation, intent and integrity.
By Dylan Dethier
Tuesday, June 19, 2018

In the wake of Mickelson Madness, Lee Westwood laid out a scenario on Twitter: "Here you go..." he began. "Over the back on 15 at Augusta. Chip it too hard, run over before it gets to the water and knock it on the green so you don't have to hit it again or go to the drop zone!" He added a shrugging emoji and tagged the USGA, as if to ask, "thoughts?"

It's a relatively rare scenario, sure, but it's not unthinkable. Mickelson himself specifically cited No. 15 at Augusta as a place he'd considered doing the exact same thing (though this would require breaking another rule: there's no running at Augusta!). The USGA was faced with a no-win decision on Saturday. Because Mickelson had said he'd intentionally violated the rule, disqualifying him would mean very explicitly calling him a cheater on the organization's biggest stage. But giving Mickelson just the two-shot penalty essentially endorsed this hockey-style alley-oop as legitimate strategy. As a result, the USGA (which has not yet responded to GOLF.com's request for comment) is left with one option: It's time for the Phil Rule.

Let's take a dive, for a minute, down a hypothetical scorekeeping rabbithole. In Westwood's proposed scenario, a pro is hitting his third shot from a delicate spot long of No. 15 at Augusta, perhaps to a pin as delicate as the one that yielded a Sergio Garcia 13 earlier this year. Say this fleet-footed pro hits his chip and then catches up to his ball as it's racing past the hole and — best-case scenario — taps it in on the fly. That would be four strokes plus a two-shot penalty for a bogey 6. What's probably more realistic to expect is the pro hitting an effective redirection to within tap-in range, then cleaning that up for a 7.

The normal course of play, on the other hand, would see the ball roll into the yellow-staked pond and leave the pro with two options: 1. He re-plays the shot from the same spot, with some significant chance of putting it in the drink again, or 2. He goes across the water for an in-between wedge shot with no margin for error: water lurks short and jail long.

In either scenario, he's now playing his fifth shot. A relatively unlikely up-and-down leaves him with a 6, while 7 is his most likely score and bigger crooked numbers are very much in play (including Garcia, four players in Masters history have made 11 or worse at No. 15, not to mention legion 8s, 9s and 10s). It would be a bit of a masochistic move from any pro to actually put this into play, knowing the firestorm of criticism Phil created Saturday, but under these circumstances, doesn't Phil-hockey sound like an extremely legitimate strategic decision?

Phil Mickelson came into the week hoping to enter the USGA's record books. He may leave in its rulebooks.

Getty Images

There's no way any of golf's governing bodies want this ever coming into play, of course. There were rules that were supposed to cover it: Rule 1-2, which several golf minds argued ought to have been enacted on Saturday, covers situations in which players have "intent to influence the movement of a ball in play," and has a clause that if said player gains a "significant advantage" through that action, he can be disqualified.

But the USGA ultimately cited rule 14-5, which covers strokes made at a moving ball and also calls for a two-stroke penalty, but has no clause covering additional punishment. Because of the precedent now set, a new rule should address the simple fact that hitting a moving ball just isn't a part of golf. The so-called Phil Rule will be simple: anyone who intentionally strikes a moving ball will be disqualified.

Mickelson entered the week hoping to add his name to the USGA's record books — he'll have to settle for its rulebooks. Otherwise the awkward jogging alley-oop will just be left hanging there as a strange loophole option, tempting players in tight spots. "I took the two-shot penalty and moved on," Mickelson said.

Your move, USGA.

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