Course Controversy: Golfer Phil Mickelson Breaks Rule in Bizarre Move at U.S. Open

Was it smart strategy or a mental meltdown that made the pro hit his own moving ball during play?

Pro golfer Phil Mickelson teed up a controversy on Saturday during the 118th U.S. Open golf tournament. He hit his own still-rolling ball on the 13th hole, earning a two-stroke penalty — and the incredulity and derision of many in the golf world.

During day three of the storied tournament in Shinnecock Hills, Southampton, New York, Mickelson hit his moving putt as it headed downhill, accepting the mandatory two-stroke penalty. Had he played the ball conventionally, he risked a score higher than the 10 he ended up getting on the par 4 hole.

“At that time, I just didn’t feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot over,” he said to reporters after shooting an 81, matching his career-worst score at the U.S. Open, as Golf Channel reported. “I took the two-shot penalty and moved on. It’s my understanding of the rules. I’ve had multiple times where I’ve wanted to do that. I just finally did.”

He defended his bizarre play, which coincidentally took place on his 48th birthday, saying, “I didn’t feel like continuing my display … I don’t mean it [to be] disrespectful. If you’re taking it that way, that’s not on me. I’m sorry you’re taking it that way. It’s certainly not meant that way. Sometimes in these situations it’s just easier to take the two shots and move on.”

“No question, it was going to go down in the same spot behind the bunker,” he added. “I wasn’t going to have a shot.”

His playing partner, Andrew “Beef” Johnston, couldn’t believe Mickelson’s move. “I said, ‘That’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen,’ and then just started laughing,” Johnston said, according to Golf Channel. “I think it’s just a moment of madness.”

“Phil didn’t purposely deflect or stop the ball,” John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships and governance, noted of the decision to spare the 20th-ranked golfer a disqualification. “He played a moving ball. He made a stroke at a moving ball, which is explicitly covered under 14-5.”

Mickelson walked off the green with an 8 for the hole, and was then told by a rules official that he would be assessed a two-shot penalty for playing a moving ball.

Not everyone accepted Mickelson’s explanation of his decision to make the controversial move — and many were quick to say that since Mickelson wasn’t disqualified by tournament officials, he should have disqualified himself.

“I’m sorry. Those are the first two words Phil Mickelson should say publicly Sunday morning after a fitful night of sleep,” said ESPN of the incident on Saturday afternoon. “‘I withdraw.’ Those are the next words Mickelson should say on his way out of the U.S. Open and into a better and brighter tomorrow.”

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Many U.S. Open fans watching at home were shocked, too. “Golf is a game of skill, and also integrity,” said a Boston-area golfer, 56, who saw the Mickelson meltdown. “To hit a ball on purpose, when it’s still moving, is unacceptable. That is something you do in mini-golf, not the U.S. Open — or any tournament. He should have disqualified himself.”

Said a father of four in New York and an occasional weekend golfer, “He did something stupid. I’m sure he realizes it. In the scheme of things, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. In the end, the only person he hurts is himself.”

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With a winning purse of $12 million, four players were tied for the lead around noon on Sunday, at 3 over par: Daniel Berger, Tony Finau, Brooks Koepka, and Dustin Johnson. Seventeen players were within five strokes of the lead — making for a great afternoon of golf on Sunday, Father’s Day.

The winner, ultimately, was Brooks Koepka, for the second year in a row; he shot 16 under par over four days.

The U.S. Golf Association early Sunday — before the end of play — tweeted out a notice about the Mickelson incident, especially after he offered to take himself out of play but was not disqualified.

This article has been updated.

Deirdre Reilly is a senior editor with LifeZette. Follow her on Twitter.