In an epic U.S. Open matchup between Phil Mickelson and the dignity of his sport, Mickelson finished second again.
The golfer who has six times been a runner-up in this major championship ran up after his ball on the 13th green Saturday and hit it while it was still moving. It was the low point in his anguished history with the national championship. On his 48th birthday, he acted like a little kid.
He knowingly broke a rule and willingly took the two-stroke penalty because he just didn’t feel like chasing his ball down the hill. But he violated the spirit of the game, and golf is all spirit. It is the sport in which golfers are expected to call penalties on themselves and when someone tries to take advantage by, say, moving a ball ahead slightly while marking it on the green, a watchdog calls them on it. At the Masters last year, the watchdog was Mickelson.
Mickelson is a good guy. He smiles to the crowd, signs autographs and performs compassionate gestures that the public will never know. Check the files. All those activities and more have been registered in this space over the years. One year ago, he was lionized here for skipping the Open to attend his daughter’s high school graduation. This time, he just whiffed.
By galloping after the ball and smacking it as if he were playing polo without a horse, Mickelson slighted Shinnecock Hills and disrespected the biggest tournament in his country. Instead of being contrite afterward, he had smart-alecky explanations for doing something only the impetuous John Daly has done in a major championship.
“I don’t mean it disrespectful. If you are taking it that way, I’m sorry,” Mickelson told a cluster of reporters. “If somebody’s offended by that, I apologize to them, but toughen up. It’s not meant that way. I simply wanted to get on to the next hole.”
Fans kept cheering for him and serenading him, “Happy Birthday to you . . . ” That said more about them than about him. He would have deserved their love and respect more if he had gamely walked down the hill, played his ball and taken his medicine with a true 10, not a penalty-inflated one. The crowd would have roared for his determination and sportsmanship.
His downhill race was, on one level, high comedy. It inspired a fan’s tweet wishing the Mets were as good at hitting a moving ball. Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who was playing in the same twosome, said, “I looked at him like, ‘Is this actually happening?’ Honestly, I looked at him and said, ‘Sorry but this is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.’ ”
That would have been fine in a pro-am. Not the U.S. Open. This called for an apology. As it was, it produced a weird rationale about violating the rule to avoid going back down the hill. David Fay, former head of the U.S. Golf Association, said on Fox that if he were still in charge, he would have recommended that Mickelson be disqualified.
The current USGA leadership declined to oust him, unfazed by the fact Mickelson has been one of their harshest critics. Even after having been spared on Saturday, he gave the USGA a jab: “Sometimes it’s tough to finish a hole.”
There is a chance that the whole thing was a way to mock the USGA for allowing Shinnecock’s greens to get crispy. Possibly it was a 48-year-old’s way of stamping his foot and holding his breath. Experience tells him that whining brings results. After he criticized the heavy rough at Oakmont in 2007, the rough was not so penal in U.S. Opens for a while.
After he disrespected U.S. captain and golf icon Tom Watson at the losing Ryder Cup news conference in 2014, the PGA of America changed its entire process of choosing the team and its captains — all to Mickelson’s liking.
He had built up enough goodwill to avoid taking heat for those episodes. Mickelson had been gracious in five major wins and six excruciating U.S. Open losses. He was wrong at Winged Foot when he said, “I am such an idiot.” In truth, he was a guy who had given his all and came up short.
He was wrong again on Saturday if he thought that breaking the rules with a smirk was all right.