SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — As Phil Mickelson deliberated with officials in the scorer’s cabin after his third round in this 118th U.S. Open, dozens of media members anxiously milled outside as if they were awaiting news of a jury’s decision. Every time the door opened, reporters would rise on their toes and crane their necks to see if the protagonist would emerge. Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. But still no Phil. Curtis Strange, reporting for Fox Sports, leaned against the cabin’s shingled wall, mic in hand, questions at the ready. A swarm of fans pressed up against a rail, hopeful for an autograph from Lefty but oblivious (the wifi is rotten out here) to the madness — or was it mad genius? — that had unfolded earlier in the day on Shinnecock Hills’ 13th green.
You’ve seen the clip by now, which begins with Mickelson blowing a 20-foot downhill bogey try past the hole. As his ball slid by on the low side and rolled toward an even steeper slope on the front of the green, Mickelson scampered after it like a cat on a hot tin roof. Then he did the unthinkable. With his ball still in motion and few rolls away from trundling down the slope, Mickelson drew back his putter and struck the ball again, eliciting a collective gasp from the golf world that seemed to say — we’re paraphrasing here — what the f— did Phil just do?
Whatever it was, it led to a two-stroke penalty (for moving his ball), a sextuple-bogey 10, and absolute bedlam on social media and beyond.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Is this actually happening?” Mickelson’s playing partner, Andrew “Beef” Johnston, said after the round. The affable Englishman flashed a toothy smile as he recounted the scene. “It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Phil has seemingly done it all. Two drivers in the bag. A flop shot from hospitality. Button-down shirt between the ropes. But this was unchartered territory. On one of the game’s grandest stages, in front of adoring New York galleries, on the occasion of his 48th birthday, Phil Mickelson morphed into John Daly.
The door to the scorer’s cabin swung open.
Strange corralled him on the left side of the veranda for a few quick remarks before Mickelson shuffled down the stairs into the frothing swarm of reporters.
“I knew the ball was going to go off in a bad spot, I didn’t feel like continuing my display,” he began matter-of-factly, as if his hijinks at 13 were as normal as a three-putt bogey. “I will gladly take the two-shot penalty and move on.”
Translation: He was fed up, and the rulebook — that hallowed doctrine that is supposed to protect the field — offered him an out. Because Mickelson had putted the ball back toward the hole, as opposed to stopping it or swiping it off the green, Rule 14-5 deemed that he merely be penalized, not disqualified. Mickelson said that he knew the rule and that in his mind the two-stroke ding was more preferable than playing what would have been his sixth shot from off the green. He characterized it as a “strategic” decision. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” he woofed, in particular on the severely pitched 15th green at Augusta.
“If somebody is offended by that,” he added, “I apologize to them. But toughen up, because this is not meant that way. I just wanted to get on to the next hole.”
Meanwhile, just two years after the DJ rules fiasco at Oakmont, the USGA blue coats were left to explain to the world why Mickelson hadn’t been disqualified for such an egregious breach of the rules. Indeed, under Rule 1-2, the Committee could have deemed that Mickelson’s actions gave him “a significant advantage,” and therefore warranted a DQ. “I would have lobbied for disqualification,” former USGA executive director David Fay said on the Fox telecast.
Mickelson was asked if his tactic might start a trend on Tour. “I think knowing the rules is never a bad thing,” he said. “I mean, you want to always use them in your favor.”
If Mickelson was distracted by the firestorm his actions triggered, it was hard to tell as he finished out his round. He and Johnston walked side by side up the remaining holes, smiling and laughing. On the 17th green, Mickelson twice asked Johnston to move his marker, which sat in Mickelson’s line.
After he missed the 18th green long and left, Mickelson hit a gorgeous flop shot to eight feet, then knocked in the par putt. After he and his partner ascended the hill to the scorer’s area, they continued to pal around. “I think we were both happy to get off the golf course,” Johnston said later. “It was more relief we got off the golf course, and now we can enjoy the afternoon.”
After all his tough talk to the press, it seems Mickelson did, in fact, do some soul-searching Saturday evening. At about 7 p.m. he texted a small group of reporters reiterating to them why he was not disqualified for the infraction. He signed off the message with an unexpected dose of humilty: “Not my finest moment.”
How much this episode will mar Mickelson’s reputation is up for debate. Rules hard-liners will excoriate him. Sports columnists will roast him. And his legion of fans?
“We’ll always be Phil people,” said Reggie Daniels, an actuary from Farmingdale, an hour west of here. Daniels had his 10-year-old son with him and was among the crowd of fans pressed against the rail as Mickelson made his case to the press under sun-splashed skies. He was unaware of what had happened on the 13th green but he didn’t seemed bothered by Mickelson’s actions.
“That’s Mickelson,” he said, smiling. “Now he better sign my hat.”