Flipping and Flopping with Phil the Thrill

published February 4, 2010

Who said golf would be boring without Tiger Woods around?  Okay, I did, but I wasn’t counting on the past week’s spectacular exhibition of Phil Mickelson’s mental gymnastics.

To appreciate the twists and back flips and somersaults that Lefty performed over seven days, it helps to have a little background:

  • Twenty years ago, Karsten Manufacturing, makers of Ping clubs, produced the Ping Eye 2 irons, which the United States Golf Association determined were against the rules of golf because of its grooves.
  • Ping refused to change the clubs and sued the USGA and several of its executives* for $100 million.
  • The USGA and Ping settled, with Ping agreeing to change its clubs, and the USGA grandfathering in the previously-manufactured Ping Eye 2s.
  • The grandfathering would hold true regardless of how the groove rules might change in the future.
  • The PGA Tour, in settling a separate suit with Ping, agreed to abide by USGA rules and agreements.

*Full disclosure: I have collaborated on books with one of the executives named in the suit, former USGA Technical Director Frank Thomas.

In August 2007, the USGA announced it was pondering changes in groove specifications, in an effort to reduce the top players’ ability to control their shots out of light rough.  A year later, it issued new specifications that it believed would do this.  Turns out, those specs didn’t work quite as well as the rules-makers hoped, and Callaway – Phil’s equipment supplier since the termination of his previous contract with Titleist – came up with a design that met the specs but gave nearly as much spin.

What would you do if you were the USGA?  The rule hasn’t even taken effect, and someone’s already designed a way to negate it. It did the only logical thing: It altered the rule, adding one word, “plain,” that eliminated Callaway’s design breakthrough.  The purpose of the rule was to reduce spin; the specs were a means to an end, not the ends in itself.

Callaway wasn’t happy.  Phil Mickelson wasn’t happy.  He made that abundantly clear to Dick Rugge, senior technical director of the USGA, at the Barclays Championship last August.  And as he tested the new and old wedges through the winter, he apparently decided that the new ones weren’t giving him as much spin as he likes.  At Torrey Pines last Wednesday, he explained his decision to put the grandfathered Ping Eye 2 wedge in his bag:

“I’ve sent in grooves that are legal but have not been approved for play, and I feel like the Eye 2 grooves are not legal or don’t conform, but they are approved for play.  And after talking [with] the TOUR and the USGA, the only thing that matters is, are they approved for play?  So I don’t feel that there’s any problem if I were to play those clubs or if anybody else were. All that matters is that it is okay under the rules of golf.”

Simple enough, until Thursday, when Scott McCarron told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s cheating, and I’m appalled Phil has put it in play.”

So last Friday, stung at being branded a cheater, Phil added a few twists: “I was skeptical about playing [the Ping clubs] this week, not because of the legality of it.  I think anybody can play those clubs.”  He repeated his claim that “I have sent in legal grooves that have not been approved,” ignoring any distinction between grooves that met the initial specifications and those that conform under the final rule.  He played nice, saying that McCarron’s point was that the rule is a terrible rule, and that Phil agrees.

On Saturday, no more Mr. Nice Guy: “A line was crossed, and I just was publicly slandered, and because of that I’ll have to let other people handle that.”

Sunday, Phil’s clubs did most of the talking, his 73 dropping him back to 19th place.

Monday, McCarron issued a statement declaring that he never called Mickelson a cheater, taking “hate the sin, not the sinner” to a semantic extreme.  Tuesday, at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, McCarron apologized to Mickelson in person, and Phil accepted the apology.

On Wednesday, Mickelson announced he would no longer use the Ping Eye 2 wedge.  “I have been very upset over the way the entire groove rule has come about and its total lack of transparency,” he said.  “I’m very upset with the way the rule came about, the way one man essentially can approve or not approve a golf club based on his own personal decision regardless of what the rule says.”  Had he stopped there, he’d have a fair point, though one that ignores the purpose of the rule to focus on the technicalities.  But he went on:

“I respect these players out here.  I like and respect these players. And last year, when my wife and I were at one of our low points [during Amy’s cancer treatment], these players came together and did one of the nicest things that could have ever been done to show support [presumably referring to the day at Colonial when all players and caddies wore pink to support breast cancer awareness], and it meant tons for me.  And out of respect for them, I do not want to have an advantage over anybody, whether it’s perceived or actual.

“So this week I won’t be playing that wedge.  My point has been made.  I won’t play it.  But if these governing bodies cannot get together to fix this loophole, if players stop using this wedge, which would stop the pressing of the issue, then I will relook at it and put the wedge back in play.”

I see now: he respects his fellow players, so he wouldn’t want to have an advantage over them, even though he did last week, unless he needs to, or has to prove a point that they’ve abandoned.  Except:

“This rule change is great for me.  It’s great for me…. I grew up with V-grooves, I have played V-grooves these last however many years… being an older player and growing up with those clubs and not having to change those clubs in my bag, I have a huge advantage.”

And it’s the loophole he’s angry about, the grandfathered Ping Eye 2s.  Except:

“I think it was a ridiculous rule change and even worse timing.  It’s cost manufacturers millions of dollars.  It continues to cost them money.…  It was unnecessary.  It was an attempt to show power.  And the arbitrary judgment of one man can take a conforming club and rule it non-conforming based on his emotion, this type of lack of transparency has got to change.  It’s killing the sport.”

Power?  No, it was an attempt to make accuracy as important as distance in high-level golf.  Transparency?  It was first announced two and a half years ago, specifications were provided a year later, and a year after that the appropriate ruling body rejected a design that met the specs but flouted the principles.  Emotion had nothing to do with it, except in Mickelson’s reaction.

There’s a reason that the players in a sport generally don’t make the rules.  The USGA wanted to make the game tougher for them, to emphasize the value of skill over equipment.   It’s part of their job.  In his words and his deeds, Mickelson has given little indication that he understands the principles involved – or a whole lot else.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)