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The dust, literally and figuratively, is beginning to settle after the highly charged and highly controversial US Open held at Shinnecock Hills last week.  The USGA, in charge of the championship, were accused once again of “losing” the golf course, just as they did back in 2004 when it was last played at Shinnecock.

They may just about have redeemed themselves on that front but I’m not so sure that they have got away with their handling of the Mickelson putt-gate affair that occurred on the 13th hole on Saturday.  To set the scene, Phil had a slick downhill 20-footer for bogey to a hole perched on top of a perilous slope.  It was a super, super fast highway and when he saw it was missing long and on the low side he hurried after it and, while it was still moving, he putted it back up the slope towards the hole again.  For a golfer at this level to purposely hit a moving ball is almost unheard of.  Lefty was penalised two shots under Rule 14.5 for hitting a moving ball and the score went down as a miserable 10.  His explanation afterwards was another jaw dropper.

“I know it’s a two-shot penalty,” he said, “and at the 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.”  He continued, “It was going to go down in the same spot behind the bunker.  I wasn’t going to have a shot. I don’t know if I was able to save a shot or not.  I know it’s a two-shot penalty hitting a moving ball.  I tried to hit it as close as I could on the next one, and you take the two shots and move on.”

Mickelson’s ironic par celebration at the scene of the previous day’s “Putt-gate” [Brad Penner – USA Today]

OK, sounds simple so far, but should he really have been allowed to “move on” or should he have been disqualified and sent packing for breaking golf’s most sacred law of not playing the game with the integrity our sport demands?  The Rules of Golf have seemingly impenetrable phrasing and meaning for us ordinary mortals to fathom but in my opinion there is another rule here that must step forward and take centre stage.
Rule 1-2 states, in part,
A player must not (i) take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play
There is a two stroke penalty in stroke play; a serious breach is subject to disqualification but, as usual, there are exceptions, one of which states,
An action expressly permitted or expressly prohibited by another Rule is subject to that other Rule, not Rule 1-2
When the USGA was challenged as to why Phil wasn’t disqualified under Rule 1-2 they cited this exception and stated his transgression was covered under Rule 14-5 with the penalty being two shots added to his score.  So, as far as they, and Phil, were concerned, case closed.
But, hang on there a moment.  Any study of Rule 1-2 clearly shows that intent matters and that the Committee should take any violation of the rule very seriously.  This rule actually covers how a golfer plays the game with correct behaviour and etiquette and rightly there are severe penalties for a breach.  Surely the exceptions, including the one cited by the USGA, are there to prevent the maximum penalty – disqualification – for an unintentional violation?  And that was not the case here.  Phil knew exactly what he was doing.  John Feinstein, contributor to The Golf Channel and Washington Post, who has covered numerous majors, summed it all up:-
“Just for the record:  taking advantage of the rules means you do something WITHIN the rules that helps you.  It does NOT mean you break a rule – which Mickelson did – because you believe it helps you.”
The USGA fudged it.  Phil should have been disqualified but he is a much loved figure in the Shinnecock area and with numbers attending the championship lower than expected, I suspect they didn’t want championship Sunday without one of their main draws.  Call me cynical if you like but money often seems to be behind decision making.
The general feeling among the players was that Phil had an agenda (doesn’t he always?)  It was his way of saying to the USGA that the course had gone over the top and that they had repeated some of the mistakes of 2004.  I can’t help wondering, however, what the ruling would have been had Joe Bloggs behaved in the same manner.  It certainly wasn’t Phil’s finest hour and he has certainly lost many of his fans but I doubt he’ll be losing any sleep over it.
For me, however, he has moved from “class” to “classless.”

On the third day I was out with Ian Poulter and defending champion Brooks Koepka in my role as on-course commentator for Sirius/XM radio.  As the winds picked up and the course dried out it did indeed move beyond what I would call fair.  Koepka, who would go on to win the title again, was unable to get within 40 yards of a couple of  flags on the back nine despite beautifully executed, crisp, short irons.  The severity of the slopes, coupled with the speed of the greens and the angles into the pins meant that good shots were not only NOT being rewarded, in many instances they were being penalised.  That, to me, is when the course set-up is at fault.

Zach Johnson was vocal in his criticism, “We’re not on the edge,” the two-time major champion said when being interviewed by Sarah Stirk of Sky Sports.  “I thought we could be on the edge but we’ve surpassed it and now it’s pretty much gone.   It’s unfortunate because in my opinion this is one of the best venues in all of golf.  Shinnecock Hills is beautiful but unfortunately they’ve lost the golf course.”

No need to trick this course up – even for a US Open.

To their credit the USGA responded quickly with a beautiful set-up for the beautiful course on Sunday.  They gave the greens a long drink of water to combat the hours of sunshine and drying winds and the pins were much more sensible, giving a quality shot a sporting chance of staying on the right section of green.  In total 15 of the 69 players broke par on the last day with England’s Tommy Fleetwood playing the round of his life to shoot 63 and finish second.  As regards course set-up there have been calls for heads to roll at the USGA but I think they have got away with it………..just.
On a happier note, congratulations to classy caddy Ricky Elliott, a 41-year old native of Portrush who has steered Brooks Koepka to successive US Open titles.  A pal of Graeme McDowell’s since boyhood, Ricky was one of the top juniors in Ireland in the 1990s.  He turned pro, playing the mini tours in the States for three years before taking a teaching post.  His caddying career began in Europe and he spent a couple of years with Maarten Lafeber and then a further three with Ben Curtis before getting the break of his life and being offered the chance to loop for Koepka.  That was at the PGA Championship almost five years ago.  And despite absolutely loving his time as a player he’s never looked back as a caddy.

“It’s been brilliant. Golf has been my life since I grew up in Portrush.  It’s what you do.  I never thought after I quit golf that you could get the feeling of winning something and doing something great in golf.  As I say, caddying is the next best thing and I’ve got that similar feeling.”

We’ll leave the last word about Ricky to the new champion:-
“When we were 7 over, he told me get it going, get it back.  We’re not out of this thing.  He was right.  And just keep plugging away.  There’s a lot of golf left.  You never know what the conditions are going to do.  I think he told me it was going to get easier, so just hang in there, and it did on Friday.
But as far as today [Sunday] went, Ricky is honestly one of my best friends.  I love the guy to death.  He’s an incredible caddy.”
Another major to add to Portrush’s list!

 

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