Sport Golf

Thursday 22 August 2019

Foul play increases heat on blazers

Even if we accepted Phil Mickelson’s belated contrition, we’d still be left with the distasteful memory of his 2014 tirade against Tom Watson. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Even if we accepted Phil Mickelson’s belated contrition, we’d still be left with the distasteful memory of his 2014 tirade against Tom Watson. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Given the divisive potential of a player clashing with authority, the seemingly universal condemnation of Phil Mickelson's actions at Shinnecock Hills last weekend, has to be seen as remarkable. But where do the blazers stand in the wake of this latest controversy at a US Open?

Only two years after the rules fiasco at Oakmont, Royal and Ancient observers could be forgiven mutterings of another fine mess. And as happened in the wake of the appalling treatment of 2016 champion Dustin Johnson, we can take it that the rule regarding the striking of a moving ball will undergo serious review when the R and A and the USGA next get together, probably this autumn.

In future, disqualification will be the likely penalty for deliberate flouting of the rule, not the kindly two strokes imposed on Mickelson. Yet it was essentially a situation in which both sides were equally culpable, albeit for different reasons.

Even if we accepted the player's belated contrition last Wednesday, we'd still be left with the distasteful memory of his 2014 tirade against Tom Watson at Gleneagles, which seriously undermined the Ryder Cup captaincy. And we are certainly entitled to expect more from the game's guardians than from someone who previously scuppered his own involvement in the 2004 Ryder Cup matches by changing his equipment on the eve of battle.

Yet there was damning evidence at Shinnecock of players being failed by those who should have had their interests at heart. Sadly, it has happened at all levels of the game including, in my experience, by officials of a green hue.

I have witnessed Irish international teams being captained by men totally ill-suited to the role - individuals who were appointed simply because it was 'their turn'. Particularly regrettable was how little empathy they had with the emotional needs of young players, especially in those bleak moments after a heavy defeat.

And I wonder how Roy Keane would have reacted to the circumstances of a particular international squad training session in Sotogrande in the early 1980s. The Irish party comprised six officials and 12 players and because of a shortage of accommodation, only 10 hotel rooms were available.

The GUI solution? Each official had a room to themselves, leaving the 12 players to share the remaining four rooms, three to a room. Fearing my memory might be flawed nearly 40 years on, I phoned a player from that trip and he confirmed the mathematics, even down to naming his two room-mates.

Not even the game's great practitioners are exempt from incompetent administrating. It even happened to Jack Nicklaus, who arrived at the 1962 Open at Troon as the newly-crowned US Open champion. By way of emphasising how the treatment he received still rankled, the Bear saw fit to recall the incident during Joe Carr's 2007 induction into golf's Hall of Fame.

"When the pairings came out, I found myself teeing off in the opening round at 3.45 in the afternoon, and not with another contestant but with a marker," he recalled. "Boy, did that raise a head of steam! Not the greatest way to begin a tournament, let alone a Major championship. Thankfully, my good friend Joe, bless his Irish heart, went to the R and A and told them it wasn't right to do that to the US Open Champion. So they moved me into a threesome."

In May 1998, Derek Lawrenson played in a charity event at the Mill Ride GC in Berkshire. As golf correspondent of The Sunday Telegraph, his good fortune aroused particular interest among colleagues, myself included. As it happened, he won a Lamborghini Diablo as a hole-in-one prize, valued at £184,000.

Given that he and his Mayo-born wife, Paula, had a six-week-old baby and a hefty mortgage at the time, Lawrenson could see only one course of action. So the seven-handicapper sold the car for a six-figure sum, kept the money and forfeited his amateur status.

Though told he could seek the restoration of his amateur status after two years, it was June 2003 before he was judged to have served his punishment. The R and A informed him: "In your particular case, your breach of the Rules of Amateur Status is considered to be a serious breach . . . Such a breach results in a period awaiting reinstatement of five years."

Lawrenson, who by then had moved to the Daily Mail, had no regrets either way. "The money made a huge difference to our lives," he said. "But obviously I'm happy to have received a final decision on the matter."

During his period in purgatory, he remained a member of the Moor Hall club in Sutton Coldfield. "There was no problem whatsoever," he said. "I didn't attempt to play in any monthly medal for fear of causing embarrassment, otherwise everything was more or less the same as normal. I continued to play about 20 friendly games a year, just as I had done previously."

But what if he had turned down the prize so as to protect his amateur status? Imagine how he would have felt on reading the R and A announcement in November 2011 regarding future hole-in-one prizes. The Rules of Golf now state: "An amateur golfer may accept a prize in excess of the limit in Rule 3-2a, including a cash prize, for a hole-in-one made while playing a round of golf." Suddenly, a "serious breach" no longer applied.

Yet to their credit, the R and A generally present venues for the Open Championship in splendid, playable condition. The only exception in recent memory was Carnoustie in 1999, when murderous rough made the course extremely difficult, especially in fresh winds. Mickelson, with rounds of 79 and 76, was among the casualties of whom Sergio Garcia was the most notable with rounds of 89 and 83.

Both bodies, however, have got it badly wrong on equipment, which continues to undermine the integrity of the game. As Nicklaus pointed out: "Augusta National is about the only golf course in the world that financially can afford to make the changes they have to make to keep up with the golf ball."

On the matter of the broomhandle and belly putters, officials identified the problem as anchoring the implement to the body. Yet Bernhard Langer, among others, has since achieved the same benefit from simply holding the broomhandle's shaft an inch away from his chest. Which screams at us that when making the change, the length of a putter-shaft should have been reduced to, say, 35 inches.

Most official actions have consequences. It may be a few years before we know whether challengers last weekend were competitively damaged by the way the USGA presented Shinnecock Hills for Saturday's third round, especially the crazy pin placements on the 13th and 15th.

Where the winner, Brooks Koepka, carded a 72, was Tommy Fleetwood less of a player for slipping to a third-round 78, or Dustin Johnson with a 77, or Rickie Fowler after an 84? In such a fluky situation, it's impossible to tell. Which hardly makes for a fair test.

Last Saturday evening, Mickelson phoned USGA executive director, Mike Davis, and offered to withdraw. He was told that wouldn't be necessary. Which could be viewed as the correct reaction in the circumstances, given that the damage had already been done - by both parties.

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