Saturday 24 February 2018

Phil, it's time you showed responsibility to the game

Karl MacGinty

PHIL MICKELSON is dead right. He has been "publicly slandered" in recent days.

Not just by rent-aquote Scott McCarron, who soon may be making a substantial donation to breast cancer research after ludicrously accusing Mickelson of “cheating” last week.

But Mickelson has also brought himself into disrepute during this sorry spat over golf’s new ‘v-groove’ regulations.

“It’s not up to me or any other player to interpret the spirit of the rule,” said Mickelson, who drove the golfing equivalent of an articulated truck through a loophole in the regulations by digging up a 20-year-old Ping Eye 2 wedge out of a dusty corner of his garage and using it at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego last week.

Sorry, Mr Mickelson, but that remark amounts to gross dereliction of your duty to the game of golf. The world’s leading players bear most responsibility for upholding the honour and traditions of the sport which rewards them so richly.

With Tiger Woods in self-imposed exile after a series of image-shattering revelations, it falls to World No 2 Mickelson and other iconic figures like Padraig Harrington to fill the credibility gap. Now more than ever, they are required to offer sound example to the current and future generations.

Mickelson’s first outing of the year on home ground at Torrey Pines, San Diego, last weekend should have offered the game a bright ray of hope in troubled times.

Baton

There could have been no better setting for him to take up the baton from Tiger, who defied the pain of a fractured leg and a busted left knee to claim arguably the greatest win of his career at the 2008 US Open in Torrey Pines.

Instead, the keenly-awaited return to action of Mickelson, one of golf’s most popular, exciting and inspiring performers, was utterly overshadowed by unsavoury political point-scoring. That Mickelson disagrees with the new rule banning ‘box grooves’ on the face of clubs of 25 degrees of loft or greater is clear. Precisely why this might be is not.

The regulation has been introduced by the R&A and USGA to limit the amount of spin (and therefore control) top players get when they hit their golf ball out of the rough.

This should place a greater premium on accuracy off the tee. Up until now, longer players could drive their ball into distant rough with impunity, confident they’d still be able to get a lot closer to the pin with a wedge from the long grass, as opposed to a five or six iron from the fairway.

Yes, Mickelson’s a boomer but, under Butch Harmon’s tutelage, he’s nowhere near as unpredictable as he used be off the tee. Rated one of the most naturally gifted wedge players, one would expect him to benefit from the new rules.

This guy’s famous feel around the greens might have been augmented by club-face technology but the vast majority of his peers on Tour are less well-equipped to meet the challenge of this rule change than Mickelson.

If he’s afraid of losing an edge, using the Ping Eye 2 wedge last weekend didn’t offer Mickelson any obvious advantage as he closed out the Farmer’s Insurance Open with a lacklustre one-over-par 73 at Torrey Pines, leaving him in 19th place on eight-under, five behind winner Ben Crane.

The box grooves on the Ping wedge Mickelson and several other players, including John Daly, have been using are exempt from the new rules because of an out-of-court settlement of a dispute between the club manufacturer and the United States Golf Association in 1989.

Under that agreement, all Ping Eye 2 irons manufactured before April 1, 1990, will remain legal for use in North America (though not the rest of the world) regardless of any changes to the rules of golf; it’s suggested their use can be prevented under local rules at PGA Tour events but this measure has yet to be adopted.

Mickelson made a convincing case when he described the new ‘v-groove’ regulation “a terrible rule; to change something that has this kind of loophole is nuts. I understand black and white. I think that myself or any other player is allowed to play those clubs because they're approved. End of story.”

Of course, the story didn’t end there. Mickelson’s decision to fly in the ‘Eye’ of the new rules raised eyebrows around the world – not least because of his endorsement deal with rival club manufacturer Callaway.

“I’m surprised Phil would do that,” twotime US Open champion Lee Janzen said. “I would actually expect him to be one of the guys leading to ask the tour to get the clubs banned for our competition. If they made that club today, it’d be illegal.”

Rocco Mediate insisted: “They need to get rid of them all. The v-grooves that we’re supposed to be playing, everybody should be playing. You look for a loophole? Why? That makes me crazy.”

Despite more than 20 years as a Ping player and having a host of the company’s Eye 2 irons, Westwood insisted he’d not be tempted to blow the dust off them: “It’d be bending the rules, not breaking them.” Though Robert Allenby’s prospects of winning at Torrey Pines were scuppered when he got his second flyer of the weekend out of the rough at 14, causing his ball to overfly the green and disappear into the wilderness, even he insisted: “I don’t have a problem with the new regulation.”

Yet McCarron (44), recently elected to the PGA Tour’s Policy Board, plainly went way beyond the pale with his “cheating” assertion. Understandably, Mickelson made a thinly-veiled threat of legal action last weekend but the last thing golf needs is a court battle.

With the Tour Commissioner expected to sit down with the parties involved today, followed by a media briefing at Riviera Country Club, venue for this week’s Northern Trust Open, one expects an ‘in-house’ solution to be found – McCarron should bring his cheque book.

Nobody in professional golf interacts with the public as enthusiastically as Mickelson, making his failure to recognise his duty to uphold the ‘spirit’ of the game and its laws in this instance all the more shocking.

The message from the Commissioner to Mickelson today should be clear: “You’ve made your point, Phil, now put that wedge away.”

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