SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – All we needed was a bearded lady and a snake charmer and the circus that was the third round of the U.S. Open would have been complete.
Play turned comical Saturday afternoon, starting when Phil Mickelson hit a moving ball.
Any golfer knows that such an act is an explicit no-no, even if they’re not familiar with Rule 14-5 (“Playing Moving Ball”).
At the time, many observers were amused as Mickelson ran after his putt as it sailed past Shinnecock Hills’ 13th hole. When he caught up to it, he decided to play hockey and hit the ball before it could roll off the green, sending the ball back past the hole.
Mickelson clearly was frustrated with his play on his 48th birthday. The infraction would have been understandable, maybe even forgivable, knowing what winning the national championship would mean to the six-time Open runner-up.
But then he explained his actions, which were purely arrogant.
“I don't mean disrespect by anybody,” said Mickelson, shortly after he shot 11-over 81, including a 10 on the par-4 13th, and tumbled into a tie for 64th (scores). “I know it's a two-shot penalty. 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.”
After the round, Mickelson said he called Mike Davis, the USGA’s chief executive, to clarify his actions.
Does Mickelson have that big of an ego that he thinks he is bigger than the game and knows the rules better than anyone else? He was disrespectful to the game, the U.S. Open, golf fans and his competitors.
You have to wonder what his brother and caddie Tim Mickelson would have done with a player who would purposely hit a moving ball when he was the head coach at Arizona State.
In the second ring of this U.S. Open three-ring circus sits the USGA’s response to Mickelson’s actions.
As Mickelson was finishing his round, the USGA supposedly held a meeting of the rules committee and determined that a two-shot penalty should be assessed under Rule 14-5. Mickelson was not disqualified under Rule 1-2 (“Exerting Influence on Movement of Ball or Altering Physical Conditions”), because the committee decided that he didn’t purposely deflect or stop the ball.
The committee members must have been clairvoyant. They didn’t talk with Mickelson, who was finishing his round. How they knew what Mickelson might be thinking was unclear.
After the round, the USGA held a news conference and said that when Mickelson hit the moving ball, he was committing a stroke. Because he made a stroke, the USGA said, that was why it didn’t disqualify him.
How about the act itself and his sheer disregard for the game?
“Does the penalty fit the crime?” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s managing director of championship and governance. “I’ll let others decide.”
Part of the USGA’s mission is to protect the game. With this incident, the USGA failed.
An unapologetic Mickelson explained his actions to the media, but with Mickelson there is always an ulterior motive. In this case, it might have been his view of the golf course setup.
The USGA promised anyone who would listen that it would not repeat the final-round mistakes made here during the 2004 U.S. Open. In that Open, the seventh green became unplayable, required a mid-round watering, which disadvantaged the early players.
For about half of Saturday’s round, Shinnecock Hills was under control. As Mickelson was explaining his actions to the media, golfers who finishing play stated what the leaderboard was confirming: the USGA had lost the course.
With the leaders having started in mid-afternoon, a lot of golf remained to be played. When second-round leader Dustin Johnson made the turn at 6-over 41, the players’ complaints had been validated.
The USGA conceded that some of the greens were over the top and that good shots not only went unrewarded but in some cases were penalized.
But again, officials parsed their words and said that what happened on Saturday was not similar to the Sunday in 2004 because they didn’t need to put water on the greens between groups.
I’m sure anyone who was playing after noon would disagree with that assessment.
In the bubble in which the USGA operates, its officials are not responsible for Saturday. In fact, they can’t be blamed for a different wind because their setup was fine in the morning.
But in the end, the lack of moisture in the greens once again was the culprit, just as it was in 2004. The advanced technology that had been installed at the course failed, resulting in inequities for the leaders who played later Saturday.
Phil Mickelson, the rules committee and the USGA showed poor judgment Saturday, and their collective arrogance failed the game.
At this point, you have to wonder whether the USGA is the proper organization to run this championship.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli