A day after telling his critics to “toughen up”, Phil Mickelson was far less forthcoming about the controversy surrounding his two-shot penalty in the third round of the US Open.
After completing a final round of 69 at Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson declined to speak at any length to reporters afterwards, signing autographs for around 40 minutes before heading to the locker room.
Asked while he walked if he had any regrets about the incident on Saturday, he replied: “I think the real question is what am I going to do next. I don’t know.”
During a third round which saw firm, fast conditions and some questionable pin positions send scores soaring, Mickelson admitted he deliberately hit a moving ball to gain an advantage.
The five-time major winner, who was already four over par for the day on his 48th birthday, badly overhit a putt on the 13th green which was set to roll off the putting surface.
However, he prevented that happening by running after the ball and hitting it while it was still rolling, a breach of rule 14-5 which incurs a two-shot penalty.
Phil Mickelson is off the rails. Putting like a four year old out there. pic.twitter.com/doUMMHORNJ— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) June 16, 2018
A number of fellow professionals felt Mickelson should have been disqualified or withdrawn himself, but he took his place in the field for the final round and covered the front nine in three under par before dropping a shot on the 11th.
Returning to the scene of the ‘crime’, Mickelson made par on the 13th for a six-shot improvement from round three before raising his arms in mock triumph.
His many fans lapped it up but it will not have gone down well with his critics, with former US PGA champion Steve Elkington among those calling for Mickelson to be disqualified and accusing him of “trying to embarrass the USGA”.
David Fay said on Fox Sports he would have “lobbied for disqualification” if a similar incident had occurred while he was executive director of the USGA, adding: “I think the current language of [rule] 14-5 is too friendly.”
Asked why Rule 1-2, which covers a ball being “influenced or deflected” and can lead to disqualification for a “serious breach” was not invoked instead, John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships and governance, said: “Phil didn’t purposely deflect or stop the ball, which is talked about in the reference under Rule 14-5. He played a moving ball.”
USGA chief executive Mike Davis later revealed that Mickelson had telephoned him to clarify whether or not he should have been disqualified.
Davis said: “Phil really did want to understand how the rule operates because he didn’t want to… frankly, as he said to me, he goes, ‘Mike, I don’t want to play in this championship if I should have been disqualified’.
“That’s where we clarified that, ‘Phil, you actually made a stroke at a moving ball, and so we have to apply that rule (14-5)’.
“That’s different than if he had deliberately just stopped the ball or whacked it in another direction or something like that. So it’s just, it’s us applying the rules.”
Rule 33-7 also gives a tournament committee the right to disqualify a player for a serious breach of etiquette, but Davis added: “It was really put in there to give the committee some ability when you have an outright, egregious situation. It tends not to be applied when a player just reacts with some quick intent.
“For instance, under that rule if somebody damages the course out of temper, typically what a committee would do is say, you do it again, and we’re going to remove you from the competition, but you typically wouldn’t do that the first time unless it was so egregious.
“So it’s there, but 33-7 is rarely used. Wouldn’t be appropriate in this case.”
Rickie Fowler, who played alongside Mickelson in the final round, felt Mickelson had not been guilty of a breach of etiquette, adding: “It just shows you how borderline that pin [on 13] could be.”
A resurgent Ian Poulter claimed a share of the clubhouse lead as windy conditions sent scores soaring on the first day of the US Open, with Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods just two of the high-profile victims.
Poulter, who was ranked outside the world’s top 200 just 15 months ago, carded a one-under-par 69 to join world number one Dustin Johnson and fellow Americans Scott Piercy and Russell Henley at the top of the leaderboard at Shinnecock Hills.
Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson are part of a large tie for sixth place on one over, but McIlroy’s hopes of a second US Open title and first major since 2014 were blown away as he slumped to an 80, his worst score in the US Open also equalling his worst in any major from the final round of the 2011 Masters.
And Woods fared only slightly better with a 78, which included a triple bogey on the first and consecutive double bogeys on the back nine, the first as a result of four-putting from long range.
Playing alongside McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson could only manage rounds of 78 and 77 respectively, while Jason Day shot 79 and former British Amateur champion Scott Gregory slumped to an unfortunate 92, the first score in the 90s in this event since 2002.
The last time Shinnecock hosted the US Open in 2004, the USGA was pilloried for allowing the greens to become so dried out that play had to be suspended in the final round so the seventh green could be watered.
And while the wind was largely to blame for the high scores this time, Spieth felt that there were “certainly some dicey pins” and England’s Tyrrell Hatton labelled those on the third, 11th and 12th as “stupid”.
In contrast Poulter – who hit the pin with his tee shot on the par-three 11th – wore a broad grin when he summarised the set-up as “brilliant” after breaking 70 on the opening day for the first time at this event.
“I did not enjoy it at all here in 2004 and through most of the US Opens it feels like you are pulling teeth,” said Poulter, who claimed his first victory since 2012 in the Houston Open earlier this season.
“It’s supposed to be tough but this week I’ve changed my mindset. I’m here to enjoy my golf, play freely and just go and play. It was brutal out there and I’m glad they have widened the fairways otherwise I don’t know what the scores would have been.”
McIlroy had been bullish about his prospects after a lengthy spell of preparation at Shinnecock and other courses on Long Island, but after missing from seven feet for birdie on the 10th, his opening hole, he dropped six shots in the next four holes.
After reaching the turn in 42, McIlroy ran up another double bogey on the first and although he birdied the fifth and sixth, further shots were squandered on the seventh and ninth.
Since winning in 2011 with a record score of 16 under, McIlroy is a combined 53 over par in the US Open and now needs to emulate Piercy’s reversal in fortunes to have a chance of making the cut, the American walking off the course in frustration at the state of his game on Wednesday.
“I was skanking it and lost like five balls in the first four holes. I’m like ‘I’m outta here’,” Piercy explained.
“I needed some time away so we went back to the house, ordered some pizza and I actually went back on my Instagram.
“I looked at some swings that I posted, positions that I was in, saw some drills I was doing and then just ran from there.”
Brooks Koepka will defend his US Open title at Shinnecock Hills next week as the year’s second major championship takes place from June 14-17.
Here, we look at five talking points ahead of the tournament.
Will the USGA get the course set-up right?
The last time Shinnecock Hills hosted the US Open in 2004, play had to be suspended during the final round – in which 28 of the 66 players amazingly failed to break 80 – to water the seventh green, which had already been described as “ridiculous” and “unplayable” by Ernie Els a day earlier.
More recently the 18th hole at Chambers Bay in 2015 was labelled “unbelievably stupid” when played as a par four by Jordan Spieth, while Henrik Stenson compared the parched greens to “putting on broccoli”.
Last year at Erin Hills, former champion Rory McIlroy was stunned to learn the USGA were cutting down heavy rough on four holes in the middle of his pre-tournament press conference.
It is hardly surprising that USGA chief executive Mike Davis admits the organisation is happy to “have a Mulligan this time” at Shinnecock.
Can Koepka become the first back-to-back winner for 29 years?
Curtis Strange was the last player to make a successful title defence, following his play-off victory over Nick Faldo in 1988 with a one-shot win 12 months later.
Koepka equalled McIlroy’s tournament record with a 16-under-par total and four-shot victory at Erin Hills, and also won by nine shots in the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan in November.
A serious wrist injury means the 28-year-old has played just five events in 2018, although he was second in the recent Forth Worth Invitational.
Will Phil Mickelson complete the career grand slam?
Mickelson needs to win the US Open – in which he has been runner-up six times – to become the sixth player to have won all four major titles, but remarkably opted to miss last year’s championship to attend the high school graduation of his daughter Amanda, who was born the day after he finished second to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999.
At the time it was easy to suggest the 47-year-old’s chances of a first win since 2013 at Erin Hills were pretty slim, but the left-hander returned to the winner’s circle this season in the WGC-Mexico Championship and has recorded four other top-six finishes.
Can US dominance of the majors be broken?
Patrick Reed’s victory in the Masters means American players currently hold all four major titles, with Koepka defending his US Open crown and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas the reigning Open and US PGA champions respectively.
However, European players won the US Open four times in five years from 2010, while Shane Lowry held a four-shot lead after 54 holes in 2016 before finishing second and Tommy Fleetwood was fourth last year.
Is a shock winner possible?
Since Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley won the last two majors of 2011 when ranked 111th and 108th in the world respectively, the lowest-ranked winner of any major has been Jimmy Walker, who was 48th when he won the 2016 US PGA Championship.
The 2017 major winners were ranked 11th, 22nd, third and 14th, while Reed was 24th before his victory in the Masters in April.
The days of Ben Curtis (396), Shaun Micheel (169) and YE Yang (110) appear to be over.