Monday 24 June 2019

Comment: Phil Mickelson has let down himself more than the game he says he loves

Phil Mickelson of the United States walks on the 18th green on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images
Phil Mickelson of the United States walks on the 18th green on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images

Brian Keogh

Be careful what you wish for, especially if you're Phil Mickelson or the USGA.

Whether you are posing as the smartest guy in the room or the toughest Major test of them all, there's a fine line between getting it spot on and drifting into the realms of ridicule, diminishing the greatness of the sport.

Left-hander Mickelson has made a multi-million career out of getting himself into impossible places only to recover heroically with another piece of short game brilliance

He'll then grin, touch the brim of his cap and give a goofy thumbs up to the "I love you Phil" brigade and charm his admirers with his latest left-field theory.

'What will Phil do next?' is now an advertising slogan.

In Trump's America, it appears that you can now do or say anything and be heralded as a maverick and a hero.

In Mickelson's world, it wasn't an act of petulance or a mental short circuit provoked by frustration at an outrageous course set up that prompted him to jog after his runaway putt on the 13th green on Saturday and bat it back up a slope when still in motion.


In Phil's world, it was all the cool and calculated ploy of a master of the Rules of Golf, that have so many nooks and crannies that the USGA was able to avoid having to disqualify him for a serious breach etiquette under Rule 1-2 (Exerting Influence on Movement of Ball or Altering Physical Conditions) but hand him a two-shot penalty for the lesser offence of hitting a moving ball.

Former Open champion Justin Leonard was one of many professionals who showed Mickelson no mercy.

"He didn't use the rules," the Texan said, "he broke them."

Whether his legacy is now tainted depends on who you ask.

Mickelson parred the 13th hole yesterday, playing up to the crowd with a mock celebration that had echoes of his maiden Major win at Augusta National as he sank a tricky five-footer.

"It looked like he won the Masters," his playing partner Rickie Fowler said after signing Mickelson's card for a one-under 69. "He didn't jump, but he had a little celebration there."

Fowler had his man's back when asked if he felt Mickelson's actions were objectionable.

"I don't think it's any breach of etiquette or anything like that," he said.

Mickelson wasn't quite jumping for joy at the finish, ignoring the waiting media, who had been critical of his actions on Saturday and opting instead to sign autographs and pose for selfies for 40 minutes with his adoring fans.

As he moved swiftly away afterwards, his agent performing blocking manoeuvres a few feet behind, he was asked if he had any regrets about the incident on Saturday.

"I think the real question is what I'm going to do next," he replied without breaking stride. "I don't know."

That the USGA's former executive director David Fay said live on Fox that he'd have voted to disqualify Mickelson, speaks volumes about the current USGA leadership, which appears to have a penchant for shooting itself in the foot.

After the debacle of the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills when they allowed the seventh green to die of thirst, leading to the humiliation of the best players in the world, the new USGA elite fumbled Dustin Johnson's rules troubles at Oakmont two years ago before giving Mickelson kid gloves treatment while at the same time almost losing control of the golf course.

"You have to understand that the USGA had pushed the notion that it wanted its US Open to be the biggest, baddest, toughest golf tournament in the world," Fay said recently, recalling the carnage of 2004.

"Heck, even before I started working there that was the image of the Open. We were in love with fast and firm. That day, we went too far."

When you play with fire, you are likely to get burnt and Henrik Stenson had no sympathy for USGA boss Mike Davis on Saturday night.

"They never fail to fail" was the Swede's brutal assessment of their competence when it comes to setting up a golf course for a Major.

As one of the guardians of the Rules, golf's image as a sport of integrity and fair play suffered a blow at Shinnecock Hills and even though the USGA followed the letter of the law, they missed an opportunity to say something about its spirit.

"As the governing body, and we jointly write the rules with the R&A, the last thing the USGA would want to do is not apply the rules as they're written," Davis said. "It may not seem like it, but the reality is we apply the rules the way they're written."

Shinnecock Hills looks like the kind of place where Jay Gatsby would saunter up for a game.

As far as the USGA and the US Open goes, F Scott Fitzgerald might have had them in mind when he closed 'The Great Gatsby' with the line, "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Watching the action unfold last weekend brought back memories, not of Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway but Martin Scorsese's Nicky Santoro in 'Casino'.

"The only trouble was, this guy was a disaster," Nicky says of Artie Piscano's incompetent efforts to make sure nobody skimmed the Las Vegas skim.

"This guy could f**k up a cup of coffee."

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