Keeping Score

Mickelson’s legacy: ‘Slappy Philmore’

Clichés die hard. And no, that’s not the title of the next Bruce Willis movie. 

One cliché has taken more than three decades to fade. I heard it again last year in a charity outing when one member of our shaky scramble team double-hit a chip shot. Another member, a gray-haired older gent (not me) wearing Rickie Fowler orange shorts and a Puma cap, didn’t miss a beat. “T.C. Chen!” he chortled.

It was a callback to the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills where Taiwan’s Chen, who had made a double eagle in the opening round, was leading until he shanked an iron from the middle of the fairway, double-hit a chip and made a quadruple bogey. Since then, Chen has been the poster child for any double-hit mishaps, usually as a noun. “He did a T.C. Chen!” Sometimes, it’s as a verb: “You shoulda seen Harry T.C. Chen-ing it at 18 today. Yikes!”

Phil Mickelson, this is your future.

Last week’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills didn’t lack for drama, but it was missing that one dramatic, memorable shot that won or lost the Open. Brooks Koepka stuffed it close at the 16th green on the final day to give himself a two-shot cushion going to the last two holes, but it was a sand wedge from 121 yards. That shot should be automatic if your name is on your bag. 

So, which shot will be synonymous with this Open? You already know: Mickelson playing hockey on the 13th green during the third round when he intentionally hit a moving ball to keep it from rolling off the green.

It would’ve been a Roy McAvoy moment except that Mickelson drew a two-shot penalty and could’ve-should’ve been disqualified. McAvoy made his 12 on the U.S. Open’s final hole in “Tin Cup” without breaking any rules. He just made a dumb, stubborn, childish, unrealistic choice to make a point. 

Hmm. Upon further review, maybe Mickelson did have a Roy McAvoy moment.

I’ll bet the next time any one of us rakes a rolling putt back toward the hole after a miss, someone in the group will tag us with “Mickelson!” Or, “Slappy Philmore!” 

So, Philmore, you’re going to be a staple of golf pop culture for years. This may be your public-perception legacy, not failing to win a U.S. Open.

Still, some good may come of this. What we learned in the afternoon of Philmore is that the USGA has another serious flaw in its rules. 

Golf’s first rule explains how golf is supposed to be played. Rule 1-2 (a subsection of Rule 1) covers what isn’t allowed, including: “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 Rule 1-2 is two strokes, unless the Rules Committee considers it to be a serious breach that has allowed a player “to gain a significant advantage.”

That is exactly what Mickelson did. Afterward, he even admitted on national television that he did it to gain an advantage. Four days later, he issued an apology via a statement from his representatives (“In the news,” June 21).

The USGA chose to stick with a narrow interpretation of Rule 14-5, which prohibits a player from striking a moving ball, and levy a two-stroke penalty. Except this rule is unnecessary. It’s already covered by Rule 1-2, which explains what isn’t allowed. 

To further foul things up, a clause in Rule 1-2 offers a Bill Clinton-like weasel bailout: “An action … expressly prohibited by another rule is subject to that other rule, not Rule 1-2.”

So, the USGA slapped (pardon the pun) Philmore with a two-stroke penalty for hitting a moving ball under 14-5. He wasn’t disqualified, according to the USGA’s John Bodenhamer, because he didn’t “purposely deflect or stop the ball.”

So, the big question is this: Why is the penalty for stopping or purposely deflecting the ball different than for intentionally hitting it? The latter is far worse, in my opinion.

These actions should carry exactly the same penalty, and it has to be disqualification. There will be rare instances, such as Philmore’s, in which players may be tempted to do what he did to gain a significant advantage. Consider Billy Horschel at the Masters when his ball on the 15th green suddenly started rolling and went backwards into the pond. A two-shot penalty for whacking it toward the cup before it reached the water might have been a smart play in that case. But that can’t be tolerated in golf.

One other option for Philmore was Rule 33-7, which the committee can use to disqualify a player who is guilty of a “serious breach of etiquette.” Bodenhamer said that was for “extreme cases.”   

What type of violation could be more of a “serious breach” than an intentional one? A felony?

What more would it take to prove that Philmore gained a competitive advantage by his actions? An admission on national TV that he did it for just that reason? Oops.

What possibly could be a more extreme case of a “serious breach of etiquette”? Committing it in the national championship and possibly affecting the outcome and prize money paid to the lower finishers? 

The USGA got this wrong on all counts.

Here’s what I think happened: The USGA lost control of the greens at Shinnecock in 2004 and let it happen again this time, even though officials promised it wouldn’t, so they felt partially responsible for Philmore’s tantrum and tried to find a way not to disqualify him, which they thought would be less controversial … but it wasn’t. (Had Philmore been told in the scoring area when he signed his card that he’d been DQ’d, he wouldn’t have come out and tried to spin it that he made a smart, calculated move against the Rules of Golf. He simply would’ve said he made a dumb mistake and was sorry.)

The USGA obviously was uneasy with its ruling when Bodenhamer was sent to the Shinnecock Hills media center shortly after the incident to explain it.

He was asked about assessing a two-shot penalty for hitting a moving ball and whether Philmore would’ve been disqualified if he’d stopped the ball instead, which Bodenhamer answered condescendingly: “I don’t deal in hypotheticals.”

On the contrary, the Rules of Golf is nothing but hypotheticals. That’s what it is for. But apparently the real answer, “Yes,” was too embarrassing for Bodenhamer to admit.

Playing a moving ball is just as bad or worse as stopping one or deflecting one, although all three actions are unacceptable. The way to fix these contradictory penalties is to change the penalty for hitting a moving ball under Rule 14-5 to disqualification instead of two strokes so it’s consistent with the other penalties. 

A timely rules change might help some forget this questionable USGA decision, but recreational golfers will remember the incident every time someone in their group whacks a moving ball in disgust on the green. Philmore has earned a lasting place in the lexicon of golf, just like T.C. Chen.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle

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