Something rather extraordinary happened on Saturday at the United States Open at Shinnecock Hills. Phil Mickelson, putting for bogey on the 13th Hole, ran his putt past the hole, and it began to speed down the green’s severe, windswept slope. The ball would almost surely have run off of the green, toward the nearby bunker, leaving Mickelson with a very long putt or pitch shot for his sixth stroke. Mickelson, however, jogged toward the ball as it began to roll downhill, and, while it was moving, putted the ball back toward the hole. He then marked the ball when it came to rest above the hole, and eventually holed out after eight strokes. (See Golf Channel story and video here).
Mickelson, one of the greats of the game and generally beloved by golf fans, may have saved a snowman, but he clearly violated golf’s rules. After his round of 81, he was questioned about the incident. Mickelson explained that he did not want to keep going “back and forth” on the hole, and, confident that he would have been left in a worse position had he allowed the ball to roll to a stop, essentially calculated that his score on the hole would be better even with the two-stroke penalty that would surely ensue (which he said he “gladly” accepted under the circumstances). Mickelson therefore admitted that he violated the rule intentionally, but took advantage of the rules in order to possibly save strokes on the hole.
The United States Golf Association assessed a two-stroke penalty, giving Mickelson an ultimate 10 on the 13th, but did not disqualify him.
While I believe the USGA ultimately reached the right result, its reasoning and rules on this matter bear scrutiny, as many have suggested that Mickelson should have been ousted from the tournament. The question is not whether Mickelson violated a rule and should have been penalized. No one — not even Mickelson — contests that. The questions, rather, concern which rule that he violated, and what the penalty ought to be. That, it turns out, is complicated, and turns to some extent on Mickelson’s state of mind at the time.
Rule 14-5, on which the USGA ultimately relied, explicitly provides that a player must not “make a stroke at his ball while it is moving.” (This Rule is subject to three exceptions that do not apply here). Rule 14-5 does not provide for any state of mind. Still, the definition of “stroke” in the Rules requires “the intention of striking at and moving the ball.” Therefore, one cannot make a “stroke” without the intent to move the ball. The penalty pursuant to 14-5 is two strokes.
Curiously, though, Rule 14-5 is followed by a parenthetical: “(Ball purposely deflected or stopped by player, partner, or caddie — see Rule 1-2).
Turning to Rule 1-2, then, we find a similar rule. This rule, however, and consistent with the parenthetical, specifically includes a state of mind provision: “A player must not (i) take action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play. . .” (emphasis added). So Rule 1-2(i) is at once narrower and broader than 14-5 — it requires a specific intent to influence the ball’s movement (and therefore inadvertence is not a violation), yet it applies to acts other than the making of a stroke (for example, it would bar kicking a ball, or batting it away with one’s hand). Its terms suggest that it also applies to any ball, not just the player’s own ball (so, for example, intentionally striking another competitor’s ball while it is moving would violate 1-2 but not 14-5).
But 1-2 also states that an action that is expressly covered by another rule is subject to that rule and not to 1-2. Moreover, if we look at Rule 19-1, we see that if a ball in motion is deliberately deflected or stopped by a fellow competitor, then Rule 1-2 applies, and not Rule 19-1.
Synthesizing these rules, then, it appears as though Rule 1-2(i) would apply to: (a) intentional acts by the player with respect to his own ball, where those acts do not constitute a “stroke,” as well as (b) intentional acts by a player with respect to the ball of another, not his own ball (even though the text of the Rule contains no such limitation). Of course, if that is so, and Rule 19-1 makes it clear that affecting the ball of a fellow competitor is what triggers 1-2, what are we to make of the parenthetical in 14-5 — which covers action against a player’s own ball — that refers back to 1-2?
One could argue that 1-2 is meant for intentional acts, whereas 14-5 is meant for inadvertent ones, but the definition of “stroke” makes this a complicated argument — one cannot make a stroke without intending to move the ball. Mickelson admitted that he struck the ball with the intent to influence its movement, i.e., he intended to move it back toward the hole. His admission, then, would be sufficient to conclusively establish his state of mind, either as to his intent for purposes of 1-2 or for purposes of making a “stroke” under 14-5.
The USGA tried to explain its decision. John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of championships and governance, said 1-2 did not apply because Mickelson “didn’t purposely deflect or stop the ball.” Rather, Bodenhamer said, “he made a stroke at a moving ball,” which is prohibited by Rule 14-5. This struck me as partly correct though incomplete, as did USGA CEO Mike Davis’s more detailed explanation last night (see story GC here).
Mickelson did — by his own admission — act intentionally with respect to his ball, and it is hard to say that what he did was not a deflection or stoppage of the ball. What is significant in my view is that when he did so, he made a “stroke,” thus taking it out of the coverage of 1-2 and requiring application of 14-5. But even a stroke requires intent (see above). Bodenhamer and Davis, then, would have been more accurate had they explained it this way: Mickelson did intentionally influence the movement of a ball in play; but it was his own ball, and in doing so, he made a stroke. Therefore, the applicable rule is 14-5 and not 1-2.
The explanatory problem, then, is not with either rule in isolation, but, rather, with how these two rules work in conjunction with one another when a player’s action seems as if it could fit both. That, it seemed to me, is where the confusion exists.
But why does it matter, one might wonder, if the penalty is the same under 1-2 and 14-5? It matters because 1-2 provides an additional penalty for a “serious breach” — disqualification. The big question with respect to L’affaire Mickelson, then, was whether he should have been DQ’d. The USGA decided that he should not be, and I think that’s correct.
First, for the reasons I have cited, 1-2 should not apply here. And if 14-5, and not 1-2, is the appropriate rule to apply, then disqualification is not even on the table as an option.
Second, even if 1-2 applied, the Rule states that a “serious breach” is one that would give the player or another a significant advantage or place another player at a significant disadvantage. Here, in my view, Mickelson’s act did not give him or anyone else a significant advantage, nor did it significantly disadvantage another competitor. Mickelson had already taken five strokes. Had he not putted the ball back toward the hole while it was moving, he likely would have finished the hole with a seven or an eight. Even though scores were high during the Third Round, Mickelson by this point was likely out of contention, and his debacle at 13 only made his situation worse.
Now, did Mickelson intend to gain an advantage by doing what he did? Quite clearly, and by his own admission, yes. That, he explained, was the whole point — to save strokes, even with the knowledge that a penalty would apply. In light of the circumstances, though, I do not see how that minor stroke gain would have given him an advantage that is “significant,” nor is there is credible argument that he created a “significant” disadvantage for anyone else (even with his penalty, he has the second highest score in the field).
Consequently, a DQ would have been disproportionate to his offense, even setting aside the question of whether 1-2 is the right rule to apply.
Still, perhaps it is important to consider the raw fact that Mickelson intentionally violated a rule for the purpose of gaining some advantage to himself. It is often said in golf that the rules are there to help, not to hurt, the player. Clearly, there are rules that give a player options, such as where he may choose between playing a ball as it lies or taking a penalty, which in some cases may benefit the player as compared to playing the ball as he finds it. Is Mickelson’s act meaningfully different? That is, when does intentional violation of a prohibition on conduct — solely for the purpose of gaining a scoring advantage — require more severe punishment?
The rules of sport do not often require intent in order to justify imposition of a penalty. But where they do, they tend to treat intentional rule violations with special severity (think, for example, of an intentional foul in basketball or intentional grounding by a quarterback in football). In my view, Rule 1-2 is an effort by golf to supply the option of especially harsh treatment to an intentional act. But it limits the range of intentional acts that it punishes.
Perhaps L’affaire Mickelson will trigger some rethinking at the USGA about how to treat intentional rule violations that are designed to give the player a scoring advantage. Or, perhaps Mickelson’s act, though intentional, was one unlikely to be repeated, and one easily — and justly — governed by the existing rules, which often allow a player to save strokes even when he takes a penalty.
Count this among the many issues likely on the mind of the USGA after this year’s event at Shinnecock.