Fallout: Should Phil Mickelson Have Been Disqualified at the U.S. Open?

The debate rages on about Lefty hitting a moving ball on Saturday

Phil Mickelson is one of golf’s most polarizing figures.

He’s a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Only eight players in history have won more tournaments and everywhere he goes Lefty’s galleries are as big as anyone not named Tiger Woods. That’s why what happened on Saturday at the U.S. Open is still such a huge talk of the sports world on Monday.

In case you missed it Mickelson was so frustrated on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills that he missed a putt, ran up and hit a moving ball to keep it from rolling off the green into an almost impossible spot. He was assessed a 2-shot penalty (something we’ll get into in a minute) and almost immediately the golf world dropped a nuke on social media.

Fellow Tour pros were calling for Phil to be disqualified (something else we’ll get into in a minute). Fans were saying the same thing, citing what they viewed as a grotesque display of disrespect for the game that is steeped in tradition and etiquette.

How you conduct yourself on the course is an integral part of the game. Knowingly and willingly violating one of its basic tenets, especially in a Major championship, is madness, although Mickelson saw it differently.

“I don’t mean disrespect by anybody,” said Mickelson after Saturday’s round of 81 (with a 10 on that 13th hole). “I know it’s a 2-shot penalty and at that time I just didn’t feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot. I took the penalty and moved on. It’s meant to take advantage of the rules the best that you can and in that situation I was just going back and forth and I would gladly take the two shots over continuing that display.”

Here’s where the fun begins.

The United States Golf Association admitted after that disastrous 3rd round that the course had gotten too difficult. They vowed to take steps to slow it down on Sunday and it seems they did.

Look no further than Rickie Fowler, who shot an 84 in Round 3 and a 65 in Round 4. That’s a change that’s caused by a lot more than just losing the swing for 18 holes.

This is also the source of the Great Mickelson Divide, and it’s rooted in two different rules of the game.

The one the USGA employed is this:

14-5. Playing Moving Ball

A player must not make a stroke at his ball while it is moving.
Penalty for breach of Rule 14-5: Two strokes.

But there is another rule that could override that one, and here is where people are looking to justify a disqualification:

1-2. Exerting Influence on Movement of Ball or Altering Physical Conditions

A player must not (i) take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play or (ii) alter physical conditions with the intent of affecting the playing of a hole.

Note 1: A player is deemed to have committed a serious breach of Rule 1-2 if the Committee considers that the action taken in breach of this Rule has allowed him or another player to gain a significant advantage or has placed another player, other than his partner, at a significant disadvantage.
*In the case of a serious breach of Rule 1-2, the Committee may impose a penalty of disqualification.

Mickelson taking the penalty most certainly gave him an advantage over the field. Assuming he saved two shots by doing that he finished higher on the leaderboard than several players, taking about $3,000 out of their pockets in doing so.

USGA Chief Executive Officers Mike Davis (who is in charge and the one who really allowed the course to turn into a sheet of cement on Saturday) says Mickelson called him and asked if he should have been disqualified on Saturday night. Davis said no.

Once again, there is room for interpretation here.

“The USGA got it right,” said San Diego State Golf Coach Ryan Donovan. “Being a golfer I think it was just out of frustration, first hand. Secondly I think he was trying to make a statement to the USGA subtle enough to say that these pin placements and these conditions don’t match up and something needs to change or this thing’s going to get out of control.”

Recreational players at Stadium Golf in San Diego aren’t so sure.

“I love Phil Mickelson, he’s from San Diego, I think he should have been disqualified,” said David Brockway, a retired teacher who has picked up golf as his main hobby and pays close attention to the game. “It was an intentional act. He even said it afterwards that he was trying to stop the ball from going back where it was. That’s not a casual mistake that’s an intentional act. I think it’s a travesty and he should have been DQ’d this time.”

That is definitely the prevailing opinion.

“From what I understand, and I’m certainly no expert on the rules, he probably should have been disqualified,” said Jim Yakes, who’s been golfing for 50 years. “But I don’t think he really cared to be honest with you. He was unhappy with the way the course was and the course was pretty crazy.”

This discussion exists at a crossroads. We know Mickelson stepped outside the etiquette and tradition of the game. The question is did he do it for the right reasons? Are there any right reasons? If he was trying to send the USGA a message about course conditions is it his place to make such a statement at that or any other time?

There is also this to consider:

Would the USGA had made a different decision if a player without the following or resume of Phil Mickelson had done this?

The answer to that is arguably the saddest part of this situation because it’s probably yes, they would have, and showing favoritism is a breach of etiquette in itself.

Contact Us