After completing his final round Sunday at the U.S. Open — one day after shocking the golf world by hitting his ball on the 13th green while it was still rolling after an initial putt — Phil Mickelson had little to say to media members. However, his wife offered some thoughts, saying, “He’s a good man who had a bad moment.”
Amy Mickelson’s endorsement of her husband’s character came in the context of that putt, a violation of golf rules that resulted in a two-stroke violation. While Mickelson was already well behind the tournament’s leaders at that point, more than a few observers felt that he was guilty of cheating, rather than simply having harmlessly given into frustration, and should have withdrawn or been disqualified.
On Saturday, after carding a 10 on the infamous hole and an 81 for the third round, Mickelson explained his actions by saying, “At that time, I didn’t feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot over. I took the two-shot penalty and moved on. It’s my understanding of the rules. I’ve had multiple times where I’ve wanted to do that. I just finally did.”
“I don’t mean disrespect by anybody,” added the five-time major winner, who turned 48 on Saturday.
According to his wife, via Alan Bastable of Golf.com, Mickelson called USGA executive director Mike Davis on Saturday evening and offered to withdraw. But the USGA, which runs the U.S. Open, determined that the two-stroke penalty was enough punishment, and Mickelson completed the tournament Sunday with a 69, finishing in a tie for 48th place.
“Phil really did want to understand how the rule operates because he didn’t want to — frankly, as he said to me: ‘I don’t want to play in this championship if I should have been disqualified,’ ” Davis said (via the AP). “That’s where we clarified that, ‘Phil, you actually made a stroke at a moving ball, and so we have to apply that rule.’ That’s different than if he had deliberately just stopped the ball or whacked it in another direction or something like that. So it’s just, it’s us applying the rules.”
Some believed the USGA was displaying deference to one of golf’s most popular figures, though, by making a very narrow interpretation of the rule (14-5) governing that situation, one that says, “A player must not make a stroke at his ball while it is moving.” After all, Mickelson admittedly took an intentional swing at it while it was moving, which could have fallen under another rule (1-2) declaring that “a player must not take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play.”
The penalty for a violation of that other rule is also a two-stroke penalty, but it has a provision stating, “In the case of a serious breach of Rule 1-2, the Committee may impose a penalty of disqualification.” A “serious breach” could occur if it allows a player to “gain a significant advantage,” and the advantage gained by Mickelson was arguably just that since he prevented his ball from sliding off the green, whence he would have to chip it back up, putt again and possibly lose even more strokes.
On Sunday morning, the USGA issued a statement clarifying its position, contending that because Mickelson “made a stroke at the ball … as opposed to another act to deflect or stop the ball in motion,” his act specifically fell under rule 14-5 and not 1-2, and thus there were no grounds for disqualification. That came after Mickelson’s “moment of madness,” as Saturday playing partner Andrew Johnston described it, became not only the talk of the tournament, but of the entire sports world and beyond.
“You might have a bad day at work or do something or say something that you regret. When [players] do it, it’s on a very large stage and there’s so much immediate reaction on Twitter and social media, it can overwhelm,” Amy Mickelson said.
“He’s a good man who had a bad moment,” she said of her husband. “He’s not perfect — I’m not, you’re not.”
If Mickelson had a bad moment on the 13th green during his third round, his final round brought a much happier occasion. Back at the scene of the crime, as it were, he shaved six strokes off his previous effort by making an even-par 4, and he hammed it up in mock celebration, raising his arms in triumph.
“Oh my goodness, I think I had most improved,” Mickelson jokingly said to reporters Sunday (via the New York Daily News), in among his few comments after his round. “I had a good time. … I played better. It was a good day.”
Mickelson certainly had a better day than on Saturday, but he likely has not heard the last of questions about his decision Saturday and the subsequent explanation. To his wife, though, it was no more than an “uncharacteristic” incident.
“If he acted like that all the time, I think that’s different,” she said. “I think everyone should be allowed to have a moment.”