SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It’s Father’s Day, and all across this country dads are barely paying attention to their new ties, so distracted are we by L’Affair de Phil. Of course, the interest in Mickelson’s hockey moment on the 13th green goes way beyond American fathers. And let’s not go too crazy here: Phil Mickelson swatted at a moving ball, breaching — for a moment — all the normal standards of the game. He had had, literally, hundreds of thousands of other moments — shots and autographs and interviews — where he has improved the game. Let’s not forget that. Also worth repeating is Phil’s short summary of the debacle, issued by text to several reporters Saturday evening: “Not my finest moment.”
But we’ve known for years that Phil marches to his own drummer. He’s not out of any known mold and that’s one of the reasons he has made golf more interesting. But one of the reasons we watch golf is to see character get revealed, and character was revealed Saturday afternoon.
As for the penalty — two shots — many commentators, amateur and professional, think he should have been disqualified. The opinion of this bureau is that the USGA got it right. To be DQ’ed, of course, is golf’s ultimate penalty. The act has to be egregious. You step on your opponent’s ball. You drop a ball down your pant leg. You fudge your card. You do something that steals, in some fashion, from others. All Mickelson did with his ridiculous act was hurt himself. He made a 10 when he likely, if he had just let the ball come to rest, would have made an 8. Viewed through that prism, he hurt only himself.
Still, his Happy Gilmore moment could only have been a distraction for his playing partner, the bearded wonder from England, Andrew Johnston, aka Beef. Beef’s a bloke, unflappable and good humored. He was shooting a number himself. But you could name scores of other players who would be just offended to witness such a thing, starting with Tiger Woods. Woods has had some rules debacles of his own. I’m not sure he has completely recovered from the series of rules disputes he had in 2013. But I’ve never known Woods to do anything that interfered with his playing partners’ ability to concentrate. That’s an underlying purpose of the rules, to create a level playing field. The golfer is required, by the rules and the game’s traditions, to always be courteous to other players.
These first sentences from the Rules of Golf — this preamble to the constitution — absolutely captures the essence of the game and cannot be repeated too often:
Golf is played, for the most part, without the supervision of a referee or umpire. The game relies on the integrity of the individual to show consideration for other players and to abide by the Rules. All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be. This is the spirit of the game of golf.
Mickelson did not do that paragraph proud.
The USGA’s handling of this bit of golfing oddness was peculiar in one specific area, and it was an obvious response to the perfect storm of confusion that hijacked the last round, and Dustin Johnson’s play in it, of the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont. The player is supposed to keep his or her own scorecard. The rules official is an officer of the peace whose first job is to help the player turn in a correct scorecard. This situation on 13 did not require Mickelson to be slapped, on the course, with two shots.
In the cool quiet comfort of the scorer’s room he should have reviewed his actions and if he was confused about the penalty of his breach he could pose any question he wished to ask. Likewise, officials could have asked him what he was thinking. He could have disqualified himself; he could have voluntarily taken the two shots; he could have argued, unconvincingly, that the ball was at rest and been assessed the two shots. The fact is, the rules officials took Mickelson’s scorecard, and his responsibility to fill it out, away from him.
Mickelson’s disappointment, walking to that 13th tee, had to be profound. He was playing that third round on a day when the course was, to use a term of the art, gettable. A 66 would have put him in position to play for the title that has eluded him for a quarter century. Next year, when the Open goes to Pebble Beach, he’ll be 49. In 2020, at Winged Foot, he’ll be 50. The following year, at Torrey Pines, he’ll be 51. All courses where he has won or contended. He’s not done, but the odds, of course, are against him. The oldest winner of an Open is Hale Irwin, who won his third at age 45. He had a perfect U.S. Open game and mentality. Mickelson does not.
Irwin’s golf was unexciting, almost grumpy. He did nothing to call attention to himself. He was Mickelson’s opposite in almost every regard. Woods is Mickelson’s opposite, too. It’s been interesting, hearing those two in press conferences this year, almost like a standup act. Maybe they realize that camaraderie is good for business. The Fortysomethings! But I followed them around for most of two days when they were paired together at the Players. If there was any genuine warmth or goodwill between them it was not obvious to me.
Each, in his own way, has an insatiable need for attention. Woods wants to pick and choose where he gets it. He wants it for his stellar golf and nothing else. Phil has turned all the attention he gets into a remarkable business. There were dozens of reporters waiting to hear his remarks after his Saturday round, and he seemed completely at ease, where another player might have been just embarrassed. In its morning coverage on Sunday, Fox Sports couldn’t show enough Phil. He sells.
There are many things in golf and life I don’t get. Phil Mickelson consorted with a known gambler, Billy Walters, now a convicted felon, but did not, as far as I know, ever get suspended from the Tour for that association, even though the Tour’s bylaws explicitly prohibit Tour players from consorting with known gamblers. Of course, the issue was complicated by the fact that Walters has played in the AT&T tournament at Pebble Beach. Lots of Tour players have played with Walters, at a sanctioned event. But Walters was more than a golf buddy to Mickelson. He was, court documents make clear, his bookie.
The Tour, famously, does not announce its fines and sanctions against players, but sometimes word gets out. In 18 years as a professional on the PGA Tour, John Daly, the self-styled “wild thing,” has paid nearly $100,000 in fines, been suspended five times and put on probation six times. According to a court document from a lawsuit, Daly, over nearly two decades, was cited 11 times by the Tour for “conduct unbecoming a professional.” He was cited 21 times for not giving his golf his best effort. Will Mickelson be cited or fined for what happened on the 13th green on Saturday? He should.
There’s more going on here than we can really know. I suspect Mickelson’s conflicted feelings about the USGA were a sort of starting gun to that on-the-green jog he engaged in on Saturday. Four years ago Mickelson declined when the USGA offered him its highest honor, the Bob Jones Award. He won the U.S. Amateur and played on two Walker Cup teams in USGA-issued uniforms. But he didn’t want the award named for golf’s most well-mannered golfer without a U.S. Open replica trophy on his own shelf.
There has been a lot of interesting response to L’Affair de Phil. This, from the novelist, and lawyer, Joseph O’Neill, landed in my inbox this morning. Some will say — many might say — that edging into politics here is a bridge too far. But the author, like the golfer in question, is exercising his right to free speech. O’Neill wrote:
“Breaks rules spoken and unspoken; brazenly lies about what happened even though we all saw what happened with our own eyes, which wasn’t a player taking advantage of a rule but a guy intent on making a mockery of the competition; doubles down on his lie in media interview afterwards, telling anyone offended to ‘toughen up,’ with the implication that his critics are snowflakes. Leaves in his wake a broken governing institution, a divided sport, and a damaged sporting ethos. Sound familiar?”
Phil will learn from this. The reputation he enjoys is his off-the-course payday. There’s too much at stake here and there’s no way Mickelson’s action on 13, and his explanation of it, is going to get anything like Donald Trump’s 42% approval rating.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]