Why Phil Mickelson’s gripe with the latest rules change is flawed

Phil Mickelson of the United States during the first round of the PGA TOUR Champions Constellation FURYK & FRIENDS

Phil Mickelson fired shots at both the USGA and PGA Tour this week.

getty images

Drama, as every student of Showtime’s golf-leaning Billions knows, is driven by conflict, and now golf, in its special way, has a new drama on its hands. The USGA, working with the PGA Tour and other organizations, has announced, in its staid way, a new local rule, aimed at tournament golf, that limits a driver’s length to 46 inches. Phil Mickelson, noted lefthanded provocateur and one of the most decorated players in USGA history, is letting everybody know he’s not happy about this new rule, dissing it with comically intemperate language, via Twitter.

Phil Mickelson plays shot during the PGA TOUR Champions Constellation FURYK & FRIENDS
‘Stupid is as stupid does’: Phil Mickelson slams USGA (again) over new club-length rule
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You might be tempted to say that the USGA officials are the federal Southern District prosecutors from Billions while Phil is Bobby Axelrod, a former caddie now living large and flying private. That would be wildly inaccurate.

What’s accurate is that Mickelson, like Bobby Ax, has never shown much interest in authority figures of any sort. Phil, like Bobby, likes to push known or perceived boundaries.

As for the high-minded and sometimes verbose USGA, it does not, of course, get everything right, but it exists to give golf the structure it needs. That’s a noble cause. A game without rules is a playground free-for-all.

Mickelson, 51, who has had one of the longest and greatest careers in golf history, won the PGA Championship in May with a 47.9-inch shaft. He won a PGA Tour Champions event last week in Jacksonville, Fla., with a driver that was also a tick below 48 inches with 5.5 degrees of loft. Kids, don’t try that combo at your home course without parental supervision. Golf balls are expensive.

Phil Mickelson of the United States during the first round of the PGA TOUR Champions Constellation FURYK & FRIENDS
En route to victory last week, Phil Mickelson used a driver that was nearly 48 inches. getty images

Mickelson, the son of a pilot who grew up in tech-minded Southern California, has always been interested in clubs and technology. When Phil was in high school in San Diego in the mid-1980s, metal drivers were starting to make an impact in golf, but the gold-standard driver of that era still had a persimmon head the size of a peach, with about 11 degrees of loft, connected to a 42.5-inch steel shaft.

The fellas, in the last days of the Sansabelt slack, would brag about their blond “oil-hardened” MacGregor Eye-o-Matics. They were high performance artworks. But Mickelson won the 1990 U.S. Amateur, at the mile-high Cherry Hills Country Club, in Denver, with a metal driver with a 45-inch shaft, to which he had added an inch for the occasion.

He was pushing then and 31 years later is still at it. What a run. All that pushing, it’s likely one of the things that keeps him young. Plus, his shades (cool!) and hair (longish and no gray!) and tweets (funny!).

How you judge the language of Mickelson’s most recent tweets on the subject of driver length likely says something about how you feel about the issue.

His opening salvo:

“Stupid is as stupid does.” Mrs. Gump. Really though, are the amateurs trying their best to govern the professional game the stupid ones? Or the professionals for letting them?

brooke henderson tees off with a 48-inch Ping driver at the Founders Cup
1 potential headache that could come from the 46-inch driver rule
By: Jonathan Wall

Funny. Not accurate.

The USGA, despite Mickelson’s contention, is not run by amateurs. It is a non-profit run by trained professionals working with all of golf’s various and competing constituencies, including the PGA Tour. It is accurate to say that the PGA Tour, by long tradition, uses the USGA rulebook, with some exceptions. 

His follow up:

It is extremely disappointing to find out that the PGA Tour adopted the new USGA rule through the media. I don’t know of any player who had any say or any kind of representation in this matter. I do know many are wondering if there’s a better way.

Not accurate.

Rory McIlroy is the chairman of the Tour’s Player Advisory Council. Jon Rahm, Billy Horschel, Justin Thomas are all on the 16-person board. OK, maybe Phil hasn’t known Harry Higgs, who is on the board, for all that long, or all that well. But they did have a knockdown, drag-out money match last summer, set up for all to see through the magic of Twitter. “I don’t think it will make a world of difference, but I was in all those meetings when we discussed it for quite a while and I think the majority of players are on board with it,” McIlroy said this week in a CJ Cup press conference, regarding the new shaft limits.

Phil Mickelson flashes a thumbs-up after winning on the Champions tour
Phil Mickelson’s odd rules situation shined a spotlight on the significance of golf’s honor code
By: Michael Bamberger

Mickelson’s low opinion of the USGA is hard to fathom. He was the low amateur at the 1990 U.S. Open, the USGA’s flagship event. A few months later, he won the U.S. Amateur, the USGA’s debutante dance, the event that has launched hundreds of careers. He played on the USGA’s winning 1991 Walker Cup team, at Portmarnock, in Dublin. His 1990 U.S. Amateur win got him into the 1991 Masters, where he was the low amateur, hanging with Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, Hord Hardin (the club chairman) and Jim Nantz in Butler Cabin when it was all over. He was the low amateur again at the ’91 U.S. Open.

Yes, of course, it was Phil’s immense skill that got him the trinkets and the team jacket and the special chair in the basement of Butler Cabin. But without expert administration at the hands of the USGA there wouldn’t be a competitive game at all. Augusta National is deeply aligned with the USGA, starting with Bobby Jones, a high priest of the USGA and a founder of Augusta National. As for Phil’s record six silver USGA medals for his six runner-up finishes in U.S. Opens — that is mind-boggling. It puts his career in a category all its own.

Without expert administration at the hands of the USGA there wouldn’t be a competitive game at all.

The baseline question is this and it has (to most people) an obvious answer: Should a ruling body tell us, the governed, different limits and tolerances for the equipment with which we play? My answer is of course! Do you want to see a yard-high tee so you could hit nothing but line-drive hook shots over the shortstop, like a major-league prospect grooving his swing off a tee in a batting cage? The USGA is saying 46 inches is plenty long enough. Now if you’re Jordan Hahn, the 6-foot-8 touring pro, you might argue that 46 inches is not long enough for you. That’s a problem for which there is no simple solution. But broadly speaking, 46 inches seems like a reasonable limit. There has to be some limit, right?

Well, Phil clearly likes 48 inches, and 49 might be coming next. That’s his prerogative, to make the case. But it’s the USGA’s obligation, to keep the game sane, to adhere to some semblance of tradition.

Anyway, when the Tour announced that it would be adopting the 46-inch limit, it used this careful language: “The PGA Tour Player Advisory Council recently reviewed the subject and we have concluded that the PGA Tour will implement the Local Rule on Jan. 1, 2022.” That suggests that Phil can still use his 47.9-inch driver on the Champions tour. And who knows what the future will bring. Maybe Phil will find other places to play, beyond the relatively short reach of the USGA, where he and his long driver are welcome.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.