AN EXTRAORDINARY US OPEN AT SHINNECOCK HILLS, LONG ISLAND, AS BROOKS KOEPKA WINS TWO ON THE SPIN, THE USGA ‘LOSES’ ITS OWN COURSE AND PHIL MICKELSON – MEMORABLY – REDEFINES THE ART OF PUTTING.
Phil Mickelson doesn’t like me. He hasn’t liked me for seventeen years. In fact, if you’ve got a moment, he hasn’t liked me since Friday 17th August 2001 when the two of us did an interview outside the scorer’s hut at the 83rd USPGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club in Duluth, Georgia. I think it was around lunchtime.
I was moonlighting for Sky Sports; he was playing golf. Truth to tell, he was playing outstanding golf, tacking a second round 66 onto an opening round 66 to be bang in contention for what would’ve been his first major had David Toms – spoiler alert – not gone on to pip him at the post on Sunday. So he was in a chirpy mood or at least he was until we started our interview.
ME: (Jauntily) ‘Phil Mickelson, a 66 today to add to the 66 of yesterday; did that feel like Groundhog Day or were they two very different rounds of golf?’
MICKELSON: (Looking like a man who’s been hit with a halibut) ‘Er, well, I don’t know what Groundhog Day feels like but … ‘
ME: (Totally – fatally – misjudging both the mood and the moment) ‘Well, it’s when a day repeats itself. You know, the film with Bill Murray and Andie wosshername from a few years back …?’
Alas, he didn’t know the film with Bill Murray and Andie wosshername from a few years back and thus did bafflement quickly give way to ill-disguised contempt; Mickelson – clearly, incorrectly – deducing that I was mocking him and fixing me with a look that could’ve withered a ferrous metal.
There was a truly hideous pause – two seconds which felt like two years – wherein a butterfly behind the ninth green held its breath and my headphones fell stony silent, unusually given we had a director who was so fond of the sound of his own voice, he often interrupted himself to try to get a word in edgeways. But like everyone else he was agog to find out whether Mickelson was going to stick or twist. Was he about to give me a colonoscopy with my own microphone or would Lefty just suck it up, grit his teeth and talk about his round?
Mercifully for me, Lefty sucked it up, gritted his teeth and talked about his round; crosswinds, firm greens, his unerring accuracy with the driver. Essentially it was the spiel he’d just given the bloke from NBC but with extra ice and a very hefty squeeze of lemon. Not that I was listening given I was far too busy bollocking myself for serving up a quirky question to a man who – clearly – doesn’t do quirk. Should I apologise? Should I try – somehow – to re-ingratiate myself? Should I try to smooth things over? Since I was, by now, confusion’s masterpiece, I did all three.
ME: ‘Phil, thanks for your time and sorry about the bit at the beginning, you know the Groundhog Day thing. But if you do get a chance one evening, it’s really not a bad film … ‘
Too late. He was walking. He was gone. Two and a half hundredweight of tumbleweed blew across the screen while, back on the headphones, the director was laughing so hard he was virtually pissing on the PA. Laughing at me? Laughing with me? Who could tell? Who cared? Apart from Phil, obviously. Phil cared so much he never spoke to me again.
So not only did I learn a valuable lesson – never make oblique cinematic references to left-handed golfers during live TV interviews at major golf tournaments held in the state of Georgia – but I’ve quietly carried my small burden of shame ever since; the miserable knowledge that while the world of golf will always love Phil, Phil will forever hate me. And it’s been tough. Even when he threw Tom Watson under the bus at the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles four years ago, even then I didn’t sense quite the same unpleasant Atlanta Athletic Club animus. I’ll be honest it’s been a lonely seventeen years.
So imagine my unconfined relief this weekend to finally discover there’s something Phil Mickelson seems to dislike even more than me; namely, the United States Golf Association. Obviously we’ve had our suspicions about Philip and the boys in the blue coats for a while now; a run-in at Shinnecock Hills back in 2004; a spat about grooves on wedges in 2010; a minor dust-up at Merion in 2013 over a 274 yard par three and, perhaps most obviously, Mickelson mysteriously declining the USGA’s highly prestigious Bob Jones Award. None, though, speaks quite as eloquently of Phil’s enduring disgust with American Golf Officialdom as the sight of him playing hockey on the thirteenth green at the US Open last Saturday.
We shouldn’t get too carried away here. After all, he didn’t take a crap in the hole. He didn’t bite the flag in half. But scooting after an overcooked bogey putt and batting it back up the slope while it was still moving was unlike anything even Phil’s done in his long, ‘look-at-me’ career. Did he demean golf? Did he demean himself? Or was he just taking the Mickelson out of the USGA?
According to him, of course, it was none of the above. It was, he said, a strategic decision; he knew the rules inside out and decided it’d be better to take the two shot penalty pop than to roll back to the fringe in five. ‘And if somebody is offended by that,’ he said, as a gaggle of reporters engulfed him at the stage door, ‘I apologize to them. But toughen up, because this is not meant that way. I just wanted to get on to the next hole.’
You see, that’s Phil Mickelson in a nutshell; as someone once put it, ‘always the cleverest man in the room’ or, perhaps more accurately, always the man who wants the other men in the room to think he’s the cleverest man in the room. Except that back on thirteen, if he’d let the ball roll, chipped from the fringe and two-putted – not the wildest of assumptions given he has a half-decent short game – he’d have been wearing a quadruple bogey eight instead of a sextuple bogey ten. So the numbers on that argument don’t quite seem to crunch.
What was equally startling was the clear implication that Phil had better things to do with his time during a golf tournament than hit his ball back and forth to try to get it into the hole. Forgive me but I’d always thought this was how the sport works; people wasting their time wandering round the countryside hitting a ball back and forth – more forth than back, you’d assume – to try to get it into a hole. But then perhaps I’m missing something here.
Certainly three thousand miles away isn’t the best place to be making a judgment on all this but, to my untrained eye, Mickelson appeared to be suffering from what a neurologist might describe as a short-circuit of the cerebral cortex or what the rest of us would call a brain fart. After all, here’s a man who’s won all the majors in the known world bar this one; a man who’s come second in this event six times: a man who struggles – annually, manfully – to adapt his gambler’s instincts to golf’s great damage-limitation, percentage-play glum-fest and a man who, yet again, was finding himself unequal to a challenge that many felt to be unfair, the more so given the pin positions on Saturday. So from where I was sitting, albeit in Darkest Gloucestershire, here was a golfer who appeared to be saying, nay, even screaming; ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’.
And if he’d come out and said that afterwards, you’d imagine he’d have garnered some sympathy. It wouldn’t have made his actions any more excusable per se but folk might’ve understood given the USGA, yet again, ‘lost the course’ at an Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills. As Henrik Stenson put it on Twitter, ’the USGA never fails to fail’. Or as Lee Trevino once said; ’one day I’m going to buy me a blue jacket and a tin of dandruff and I’m going to run the USGA.’ PR-wise it was an open goal; indeed Phil standing up for the rest of the practice range – a father-figure on a Fathers’ Day weekend – might just have gained some much-needed traction.
But instead Mickelson opted for defiance, to tell us how clever he was in explicitly taking advantage of golf’s hallowed regulations. ‘I don’t see how knowing the rules and using the rules is a manipulation in any way,’ he said. ‘I’ve had multiple times when I’ve wanted to do that. I just finally did.’ Playing partner Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnson was asked whether he’d ever thought of doing the same thing. ‘No, no, I don’t think anyone has,’ he said. ‘No one ever has them thoughts’.
Naturally the media – social or otherwise – has been aflame. Should the USGA have charged him under rule 14-5 or rule 1-2? And while you’re there, what the buggery bollocks is the difference between rule 14-5 and rule 1-2? Yes, he should have been DQed. No, he should’ve DQed himself. Actually he should have been forced to run round the clubhouse with his trousers down. Look, whatever your thoughts on Mickelson, there’s no question the rules need sorting out because – clearly – there’s a loophole here the size of Long Island. The game’s about playing the ball where it lies not when it’s moving.
And as for Phil, you suspect that for all his bluster, Saturday on Thirteen will be a moment he’ll come to regret. He really is one very strange critter. Last year, rather wonderfully, he skipped the US Open at Erin Hills because he didn’t want to miss his daughter Amanda’s graduation. It doesn’t get much cuter than that. Yet twelve months later, he decides – quite bizarrely – to make a small mockery of a sport he’s graced for a quarter of a century. Therein, perhaps, lies his enduring fascination.
Look, whichever way you dice it, Mickelson, by his own admission, trashed a sine qua non of the game to try to gain a competitive advantage, not a happy position to try to defend in as noble and as upright a game as golf. But, then again, as one reporter Stateside deliciously put it, he did ‘get to kick the USGA in the nuts’ so perhaps he’ll consider that an ample compensation. And from a purely selfish point of view, thank God that particular thought never crossed his mind seventeen years previously at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Duluth, Georgia.
18 JUNE 2018