SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. (Reuters) - Officials found themselves in a firestorm of criticism for opting not to disqualify Phil Mickelson after the five-times major champion deliberately hit a moving ball during the third round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills on Saturday.
The incident happened on the 13th green in what the American said was a deliberate action to “take advantage of the rules” — a comment that did not sit well with some former players.
The controversial moment occurred after Mickelson missed a short downhill putt and his ball continued to trickle away from the cup, aided by both gravity and a strong tailwind.
Rather than waiting for it to stop, he broke into a trot and when the ball was about 15 feet below the cup, and still in motion, he hit it back up the slope and it came to rest above the hole.
Mickelson, who is well out of contention for victory, said he knew the action would bring a two-shot penalty, and that he had hit the ball to prevent it from rolling all the way off the green and behind a bunker.
“I didn’t feel like going back and forth,” he told reporters. “I would do it again. I wanted to get to the next hole and I didn’t see that happening at the time without the two shots.
“I think knowing the rules is never a bad thing. I mean, you want to always use them in your favour.”
Hitting a moving ball incurs a two-stroke penalty, and Mickelson was eventually assessed with a six-over 10 at the par-four hole.
He could have been disqualified had officials deemed it a serious breach of another rule that states “a player must not take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play”.
However, U.S. Golf Association rules chief John Bodenhamer said Mickelson’s violation did not reach such a level.
Former PGA Tour winner Frank Nobilo was not impressed by the USGA decision.
“To me it was quite straightforward. I think he should be disqualified,” New Zealander Nobilo said in his role as a Golf Channel analyst.
“The game would have benefited from it. He is not using the rules, he is deliberately breaking the rules.”
Fellow analyst Brandel Chamblee was similarly scathing.
“This was Phil Mickelson disrespecting not only his position in the game, but also disrespecting the game,” he said.
Television analysts on the live coverage were stunned.
“John Daly’s reputation took a hit after what he did at Pinehurst in ‘99 and I fear it will be the same for Phil,” former U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay said when comparing the incident with one from 19 years ago.
Major champions Curtis Strange and Paul Azinger were equally astonished.
“I’ve never seen anything like that from a world class player in my life,” Strange added.
Said Azinger: “That’s the most out of character I’ve ever seen Phil Mickelson.”
Azinger was also not convinced by Mickelson’s explanation.
“That’s good spin,” he said.
Andrew Johnston, who was paired with Mickelson, was also in disbelief at the incident and broke into laughter, prompting the American to also grin as the pair walked off the green.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s something you might see on your home course with your mates. It was just a moment of madness but nothing disrespectful,” the Briton said.
The incident on Mickelson’s 48th birthday brought to mind a similar episode by Daly during the 1999 U.S. Open when he swatted a moving ball in frustration after it rolled back towards him three times behind the back of the eighth green.
The flamboyant Daly, however, was already considered unpredictable, whereas Mickelson’s reputation as the golden man of American golf has been cultivated over almost three decades of exemplary behaviour on the course.
Mickelson, who needs to win the U.S. Open to complete the career grand slam of all four majors, shot 81 for a 17-over 227 total as any hope of accomplishing the feat disappeared for another year.
Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by John O'Brien