The Slaughter At Shinnecock Stains The Legacy Of Both A Great Title And Phil Mickelson
As far as Phil Mickelson is concerned the GA in USGA probably stands for “god awful”. In his putting protest against course conditions in Round Three of this year’s Mens U.S. Open (run by the U.S. Golf Association) Mickelson pitted his sterling reputation against the prestige of the USGA.
It was a pyrrhic victory for the 48-year-old star trying to add a U.S. Open title before his best days are done. In hitting his putt on No. 14 before the previous one stopped moving, Mickelson broke an inviolate rule of the game. That called for a two-stroke penalty. He carded a massive 10 on the par 4 on way to a 81 that effectively left him out of the title hunt at +15.
As there was little doubt that Lefty committed the mistake in full knowledge of what he was doing, there were calls on the FOX TV and NBC Golfchannel broadcasts for him to be disqualified. But the USGA, already humiliated by their punitive setup of the course, declined to punt him (TV ratings in mind, no doubt).
The biggest cost to Mickelson, outside his bloated score, is to his reputation as one of the sport’s ambassadors. While he has had some dicey moments off the course (an FBI sting accused him of stock speculation and he paid a $1 M US restitution), Mickelson has been known as the smiling yin to Tiger Woods’ brooding yang since the 1990s. TV cameras are forever catching him signing autographs and high-firing fans.
While some of this is theatre, there’s no doubt that choosing to make a stand against the USGA will haunt him almost as much as did his earlier penchant for blowing sure things in big tournaments. The hit-while-walking schtick was previously in the realm of the John Dalys, the court jester of the PGA Tour. Its not an honourable thing to do, and in golf that still matters a bunch.
Having said that, Mickelson was using his rep as an untouchable to give voice to what a lot of other players have been feeling the past decades about how the USGA under CEO Mike Davis tricks up its courses to humble the stars of the Tour. And there’s no doubt that the war between the Mickelsons and the suits who run golf in the U.S. is at a boiling point.
Here are but a few players’ comments. Rafa Cabrera-Bello: “… it was not a fair test of golf. Greens were unplayable, with unnecessary pin positions. @USGA found a way to make us look like fools on the course. A pity they manage to destroy a beautiful golf course.”
Ian Poulter: “I’m not sure i could possibly comment without using words which shouldn’t be seen... just like some of those pins. “Disappointing” @USGA @usopengolf why are mistake still being made at this level. Was that fun to watch guys ? I’m only 4 behind & can still win this.”
The Slaughter at Shinnecock is just the latest in a series of disasters to befall the ultimate men's golf championship in the U.S. To pick just a few, there were the miserable greens at Chambers Bay (2015), the unreachable pins at Olympic Club (1998), the Dustin Johnston rules applications at Oakmont (2016) that led the USGA to admit they’d “made a bogey” in their rulings, and the previous trip to Shinnecock in 2004 when the course again turned into the Daytona Speedway of putts.
As Thomas Boswell noted in the Washington Post, “This USGA setup couldn’t identify the difference between Tommy Fleetwood, 12th in the world, and Fleetwood Mac (one of his favorite bands).” By the end of the day on Saturday, the USGA was once again admitting error in pushing the course too close to impossible— and then watching it go past that line of control.
Davis tweeted,“There were some aspects today where well executed shots were not rewarded... We missed it with the wind. We don’t want that. The firmness was ok but it was too much with the wind we had. It was probably too tough this afternoon - a tale of 2 courses”
The question is why does this keep happening to the people who are allegedly the best agronomists, meteorologists, architects and rules stewards in the U.S.? Granted the Masters only has the one course at Augusta National, but remind me when it was ever in embarrassing form for the April tournament? Likewise the PGA Tournament, which is often played in beastly heat in August, has rarely suffered such black eyes. Ditto the May TPC Tournament at Ponte Vedra.
Sure the scores can go low at those venues, but who complains about the tracks being easy? No one.
Sunday’s final round, Shinnecock showed a softer face. Fleetwood shot a record 63. Brooks Koepka won his second consecutive Open, just the seventh man to do so. Mickelson, playing early the day, carded a 69. They handed out trophies and the network tried to play up the nice finish.
But The Slaughter at Shinnecock will linger for the USGA and for Mickelson. That’s a shame for such a great title and player. Or as Phil might say, it’s a “god awful” way to decide a tournament.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on his website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand will be available this fall.