SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — At the United States Open on Saturday afternoon, the golf world watched Phil Mickelson melt down: He jogged after yet another errant putt and shockingly swatted the moving ball back toward the hole with his putter.
It was one of dozens of missed putts in the last three days by Mickelson, and his response to yet another disappointment was familiar to any golfer.
He snapped. It was an act of frustration.
For such a serious breach of golf’s rules, Mickelson could have been disqualified from the championship. In a technicality, or a generous rules interpretation by the United States Golf Association, Mickelson was assessed only a two-stroke penalty and allowed to play on.
But the bigger damage came after Mickelson’s third round at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club ended with a discomforting score of 81, which left him a humiliating 17 over par for the tournament. It was at this moment that Mickelson beseeched his peers, the greater golf community and his legion of fans to believe that his slap at a moving ball was actually a calculated, astute use of the rules — just another way for a PGA Tour veteran to save a few strokes.
Mickelson insisted he had not acted in haste or irritation. Instead, he said, he knew that the penalty for striking a moving ball was two strokes, and he had quickly determined that was a better result than letting his wayward putt roll off the green into worse shape. (There is a separate rule for stopping or deflecting a moving ball that could have led to a disqualification, but officials determined that Mickelson had violated the rule for striking a moving ball, not the one for stopping or deflecting one.)
“I’ve thought about doing the same thing many times in my career,” Mickelson said about striking rather than stopping his moving ball. “I just did it this time. It was something I did to take advantage of the rules as best I can.”
It is an explanation that stretches credulity, to put it nicely.
For perspective, let’s flip the script. Would you believe that answer if it came from Tiger Woods?
Mickelson is one of the most popular golfers of the last quarter-century, and he deserves the adoration and esteem he has received. There is no joy in pointing out that common sense says that Mickelson, vexed by another disheartening result at the U.S. Open, finally let the game get to him.
Mickelson is a five-time major champion who has finished second at the U.S. Open six heart-rending times. The championship began poorly for him with another punch to the gut, in the form of a first-round 77. He rallied on Friday to make the cut when 14 other major champions could not.
On Saturday, Mickelson arrived at the first tee with fans singing “Happy Birthday” in tribute to his 48th. He smiled and gave his hallmark thumbs-up gesture over and over to thunderous ovations.
Things started out reasonably well, but beginning with the eighth hole, he made four consecutive bogeys. The handwriting was on the wall — yet another round, yet another U.S. Open, was going to end badly. That was the mood that Mickelson took to the par-4 13th hole.
His tee shot was in the fairway, but his second and third shots did not find the green. Soon he had a treacherous, 25-foot downhill putt for bogey. The ball missed the hole and kept going. Mickelson paused, then gave chase like a vexed 30-handicapper. When he caught up to the ball, he whacked it back up the hill and past the hole again. His next putt was from seven feet, and it lipped out. He tapped into an eight that became a 10 with the two-stroke penalty.
His playing partner, the English golfer Andrew Johnston, who goes by the nickname Beef, started laughing. He saw the scene for what it was.
“A moment of madness,” Johnston said after the round. “It was funny. Phil said, ‘I don’t know what that is or what that score is.’”
After his round, Mickelson went into the cottage that serves as the scoring headquarters and remained inside the building for nearly 20 minutes, or about 18 minutes longer than is usual. When he emerged, he was smiling.
He had not acted without thought and logic, he said innocently, and he did not think he had in any way disrespected the game of golf by taking advantage of the rules.
“I didn’t mean it disrespectfully, but if you’re going to take it that way, that’s not on me,” Mickelson said. “I’m sorry you’re taking it that way.”
He added: “I was just going back and forth. In that situation I would gladly take two strokes. I don’t see how knowing the rules and using the rules is a manipulation in any way.”
Asked if he worried that the incident might be a smudge on his heretofore sterling reputation, Mickelson, in what might have been a telling insight to his frame of mind on Saturday, was apologetic and defiant at the same time.
“If somebody is offended, I apologize to them,” he said. With a thin smile, he continued, “But toughen up because this is not meant that way.”
Mickelson appeared relaxed, composed and reasoned. It had been about 75 minutes since yet another errant putt had breezed past its intended destination and heartlessly trundled away. It was long past the moment when Mickelson snapped.
But it was not forgotten.