On his 48th birthday Saturday, Phil Mickelson was like a kid again. That’s not necessarily a good thing, not when it means behaving at a major championship the way you might when the ball just won’t go through the clown’s mouth during your putt-putt party.
Mickelson shot 81 in the third round of the U.S. Open, the one major championship he never will own.
Even more surprisingly was the bizarre scene on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills, one that prompted Fox analyst Paul Azinger to comment, “I think he just snapped.”
Already suffering a difficult day of golf, Mickelson tapped his 18-foot downhill putt and watched as it rolled and rolled and rolled by the hole, picking up speed as it approached a steeper slope. Until he could watch no more. He suddenly broke into a semi-jog, intercepted the ball as it was still rolling, and slapped it back uphill with his putter. An acceptable shot in polo and hockey, but not golf.
That’s something John Daly does – and did in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst to protest what he thought were unfair pins.
But not Phil Mickelson.
The phrase “bush league” comes to mind. Not one commonly associated with a three-time Masters champion (five majors all told).
Among all those who were stunned by the move – one that resulted in a two-stroke penalty as well as a well-deserved blow to the image of one of the game’s more popular players – was Azinger.
“I’ve never seen anything like that from a world-class player,” he told his national audience, also calling it the most out-of-character act from Mickelson that he could imagine.
Afterward, Mickelson characterized it as only using the rules to his advantage, not an act of disrespect.
“I know it’s a two-shot penalty,” he said. “At that time, I just 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 it.
Asked if he thought it showed disrespect to the Open, Mickelson said, “It’s certainly not meant that way. It’s meant to take advantage of the rules as best you can.”
Somebody needs to change those rules. Because regardless of the letter of the law, what Mickelson did there was a real, real bad look.
He had traversed all sides of that 13th green even before his breach of etiquette. His approach to the par 4 bounded over the green. His chip then tumbled off the front edge. The next chip when 18 feet by the hole.
“I could still be out there potentially,” Mickelson said, hyperbolically. “I took two shots (penalty) and moved on and got to play the next hole.”
Thus unraveled a day that had begun quite joyously for Mickelson. At the first hole, a group of eight fans wore party hats and unfurled a Happy Birthday banner. There and elsewhere impromptu choruses of “Happy Birthday” broke out at his approach.
And, for a guy beginning his stroll on the back nine of life, Mickelson had drawn the perfect playing partner.
Any middle-aged man who has had his inevitable issues with the sag and spread of aging should get to spend one afternoon standing next to Andrew Johnston on the tee. The Brit is not nicknamed “Beef” because of a flinty physique.
So, more than anyone else left in this major weekend, the beefy Beef with the beard an eagle could nest in represented the perfect feel-good pairing. You know, Mickelson could say to himself on the first tee, that guy’s nearly 20 years younger than I am. I’m not doing so bad here. I may just play shirtless.
And he certainly was fortunate to have the good-natured Johnston there when he started playing foosball on the 13th green.
“I said to him that’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen and then just started laughing to be honest,” Johnston said. “I said I’m sorry, but I’ve got to laugh at this.”
“I think it’s just a moment of madness,” he said.
Starting the day at 6 over par, 10 strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson, Mickelson wasn’t going into the day burdened by the pressure of contention. If he chose to, he could swing as freely as if this sunny, mild day were a present to him. He smiled his goofy smile all the way to the end, slapping hands with fans on his way to the scorer’s area, where he spent a long half-hour over his card.
No, really, it was a great day, he said.
“I’ve had an awesome day,” he said afterward. “The people have been incredible. It’s a fun birthday.
“I don’t mean any disrespect. If that’s the way people took it, I apologize to them.”
In assessing the two-stroke penalty on the hole, the USGA chose not to employ its Rule 1-2: “Exerting Influence on Movement of Ball or Altering Physical Conditions.” That comes with a possibility of disqualification. It instead cited a Rule 14-5: “Playing a Moving Ball.” And the two-stroke penalty it entails.
There apparently is no rule of any number entitled, “Role Model Acting Out.” Perhaps there should be, with the penalty of an hour in time-out to think over his behavior.