Phil Mickelson shocked commentators and fans at the U.S. Open on Saturday after a missed putt on hole 13, when he ran over to the still-rolling ball and jabbed it toward the hole. That move is common to weekend golfers, but it’s a two-stroke penalty according to the rules of golf.
After a day of missed greens and lip-outs, Mickelson evidently had had enough with the difficult course. Though Mickelson said later that the move was a calculated one, reporters were skeptical and Fox News Sport’s Curtis Strange asked whether the move showed “disrespect to the championship.”
This controversy didn’t happen in isolation. Only three players in the field shot under par on Saturday. As the course dried out in the afternoon, the conditions went from difficult to unfair. Pin placement on inconsistent greens penalized many good approach shots that landed near the hole and rolled off the green. In his post-round interview, Justin Thomas described the pin placement on the 15th green as “unplayable.” Others chose more stark terms, like Zach Johnson, who said the course was “lost.”
With every year, the U.S. Open venues seem to be harder, faster, and longer, and this year is no exception. Coming off Brooks Koepka’s 16-under par victory last year at Erin Hills, tied with Rory McIlroy’s 2011 win at Congressional for the lowest winning score to par, the firm and fast conditions paired with 20 mph wind gusts at Shinnecock Hills seemed to be the perfect rebuttal from the USGA.
Even after the USGA Chief Executive Mike Davis came on the air late in the afternoon to admit the association made a few mistakes and allowed good shots to be penalized, it isn’t clear that they really know where the line between difficult and unfair really lies.
This isn’t the first time players have spoken out about unfair playing conditions at Shinnecock. After the greens weren’t watered all weekend in 2004, not one player shot under par. Davis called 2004 “a great learning experience” in 2011, but after apologizing for the same thing at the same venue, the USGA doesn’t seemed to have learned its lesson.
The U.S. Open is known as golf’s toughest test, and the difficulty of the course is a part of what makes this event great. It’s understandable that the USGA wants to differentiate this tournament from regular events, where winning scores often reach double digits under par. So yes, the fairways should be firm and the rough should be long, but the greens should be hittable and the putts should be makeable. Otherwise, it doesn’t reward good players and is hard to watch.
So when Mickelson finds it more advantageous to take a two stroke penalty than to “play it as it lies,” instead of questioning his respect for the tournament, golf commentators should question the USGA’s respect for the players who make its tournament worth watching.