SOUTHAMPTON (New York) • Officials found themselves in a firestorm of criticism for opting not to disqualify Phil Mickelson after the five-time Major champion deliberately hit a moving ball during the third round of the US Open at Shinnecock Hills on Saturday.
The incident happened on the 13th green in what the American said was a deliberate action to "take advantage of the rules" - a comment that did not sit well with some former players.
The controversy occurred after Mickelson missed a short downhill putt and his ball continued to trickle away from the cup, aided by both gravity and a strong tailwind.
Rather than waiting for it to stop, he broke into a trot and, when the ball was about 15 feet below the cup, and still in motion, he hit it back up the slope and it came to rest above the hole.
His actions dominated the headlines which would have been reserved for world No. 1 Dustin Johnson's third-round collapse. The overnight leader by four shots carded a seven-over 77 and fell into a four-way tie at the top with fellow Americans Brooks Koepka (72), Daniel Berger and Tony Finau (both shot 66).
All four were on three-over 213 and led Englishman Justin Rose (73) by one stroke, and Swede Henrik Stenson (74) by two.
PLAYING DOWN THE INCIDENT
I've never seen anything like it. It's something you might see on your home course with your mates. It was just a moment of madness but nothing disrespectful.
ANDREW JOHNSTON, British golfer who was Phil Mickelson's playing partner.
Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat (68) was also in contention, three shots back on 216.
Mickelson, who signed for an 81 and was on 17-over 227, said he knew the action would bring a two-shot penalty, and that he had hit the ball to prevent it from rolling all the way off the green and behind a bunker.
"I didn't feel like going back and forth," he said. "I would do it again. I wanted to get to the next hole and I didn't see that happening at the time without the two shots.
"I think knowing the rules is never a bad thing. I mean, you want to always use them in your favour."
3RD ROUND (selected, USA unless stated)
213 Daniel Berger 76 71 66, Tony Finau 75 72 66, Brooks Koepka 75 66 72, Dustin Johnson 69 67 77
214 Justin Rose (Eng) 71 70 73
215 Henrik Stenson (Swe) 71 70 74
216 Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha) 76 72 68, Patrick Reed 73 72 71, Jim Furyk 73 71 72
217 Ian Poulter (Eng) 69 72 76
218 Justin Thomas 74 70 74
219 Paul Casey (Eng) 73 73 73, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng) 75 66 78
221 Li Haotong (Chn) 79 68 74, Alex Noren (Swe) 72 72 77, Marc Leishman (Aus) 74 69 78
224 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn) 75 70 79
226 Rickie Fowler 73 69 84
227 Phil Mickelson 77 69 81
Mickelson was eventually assessed with a six-over 10 at the par-four hole. He could have been disqualified had officials deemed it a serious breach of another rule that states "a player must not take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play".
However, US Golf Association rules chief John Bodenhamer said Mickelson's violation did not reach such a level.
He insisted rule 14-5 was appropriate to the situation and noted: "It is not an intent-based rule. It is a fact-based rule. You operate under what actually happened."
Former PGA Tour winner and Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo was unimpressed by the USGA decision. "To me, it was quite straightforward. I think he should be disqualified," he said.
"The game would have benefited from it. He is not using the rules, he is deliberately breaking the rules."
Television analysts on the live coverage were stunned.
"John Daly's reputation took a hit after what he did at Pinehurst in '99 and I fear it will be the same for Phil," former US Golf Association executive director David Fay said when comparing the incident with Daly's one from 19 years ago.
The incident on Mickelson's 48th birthday brought to mind a similar episode by Daly during the 1999 US Open when he swatted a moving ball in frustration after it rolled back towards him three times behind the back of the eighth green.
The flamboyant Daly, however, was already considered unpredictable, whereas Mickelson's reputation as the golden man of American golf has been cultivated over almost three decades of exemplary behaviour on the course.
Andrew Johnston, paired with Mickelson, was also in disbelief and broke into laughter, prompting Mickelson to also grin as the pair walked off the green.
"I've never seen anything like it. It's something you might see on your home course with your mates. It was just a moment of madness but nothing disrespectful," the Briton said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE