Phil and the 13th. One of my favorite shots in golf at Augusta in 2010, and now one of my favorite on-the-course stories ever at Shinnecock in 2018.
Let’s start it from the top. In his presser before the tournament, Phil said he just wanted to “stay in it on Thursday, stay in it on Friday, and have an opportunity for the weekend.” Which, in retrospect, he essentially accomplished, even though he struggled on Thursday shooting a 77 while being 8 strokes behind DJ. But everyone knew the course was going to be tough and that the winner would be somewhere around even par, so as long as he stacked some good rounds on top of each other, Phil could put himself right back in contention. And then although he lost a little bit of pace to DJ after Friday sitting 10 strokes back, he shot 1-under, and if DJ falls back to the field and Phil keeps grinding, he could possibly make moves on Saturday and Sunday.
Well, then Saturday happened. The front 9 wasn’t exactly what Phil wanted, going 2-over with some bad momentum after bogeying 8 and 9, so he probably felt like he had to press a bit more on the back 9 to at least get him back within shouting distance. But then he bogeys 10 & 11, and the writing on the wall is becoming a bit more obvious as he sits at +10 overall. He pars 12, and comes to 13. He messes around and has an 18 foot bogey putt, so even if he makes it he’s bogeyed 6 of the last 9 holes and is out of contention barring a miracle. And even though everyone else is struggling as well, his poor day on Thursday didn’t put him in a situation to take advantage of the course dominating everyone on Saturday. So he lines up his bogey putt, and smacks it just a little too much, and then this ensues:
Pure gold. I don’t care what you want to call it, I love that moment. Some people saying there’s no way he knew that rule nuance, some people say he was exploiting a loophole, whatever the case, Phil in that moment didn’t want to deal with the possibility of the ball rolling off the green into a bunker. And it’s incredibly relatable. These guys are some of the most competitive people in the world because they are masters of their craft, and even though Phil, a guy widely regarded as the second best player of his era and easily a top-15 golfer of all time, is one of the most competitive out there, he just said “fuck it I’m gonna go hit that ball before it gets any worse.” That’s like me going out to The Knoll, playing ping pong with my wedge around the green, and once I finally get a putt around 5 feet of the hole just kicking it in, moving on, and taking the “triple.” The average/casual golfer and golf fan could easily relate to that moment. And the fact Phil doubled down and didn’t apologize for doing it directly after it happened made it that much better, and even though he just apologized today I think that was to be expected as time went on.
What I lived for was the backlash from the golf hardos of the world. The guys who act like the sanctity of the game was called into question because one man acted out of frustration or bent the rules his way. Which is weird because if you’re a hardcore golf fan you’re usually into most other major sports as well, and often times in every other sport gamesmanship is celebrated. Bill Belichick gets countless praise for constantly knowing the rule book in and out and knowing how to take advantage of “loopholes” or “oddities,” depending on how you want to frame your argument. Sign stealing at second base is probably the oldest form of gamesmanship in sports. And hack-a-(insert bad free throw shooter’s name) is turning into a mainstream strategy for basketball coaches. And yes there are people out there who will criticize these acts as not being within “the spirit of the game,” but that’s a broader conversation and I think most logical people understand gamesmanship will always be a part of sports and is good for sparking interest.
So why doesn’t that apply to Phil here? Why is there backlash against a seemingly innocuous action taken to exploit a loophole for a guy so behind the lead? I would understand the severe debate if Phil had done that with a 5 stroke lead on the 17th hole on Sunday, but even then I would still be on the side of loving that move. And yes, that comes with a good amount of personal bias, but even in the grand scheme it also makes golf more interesting. The 50 year old golf personalities on TV or writing columns can be worried that a major will be decided by someone taking advantage of the rules in such a way, but 1) that most likely will never happen and 2) that would be one of the most electric and talked about finishes in golf history. Now I know it wouldn’t exactly grow the game in the long-term, but in the short-term golf would be at the forefront of sports conversation because of a creative, unforeseen controversy. And what exactly is “the spirit of the game” that everyone is trying to protect? I’d say you want the smartest, most competitive golfers playing week in and week out for tour wins, and if someone happens to take advantage of a rule to win, shouldn’t that type of savvy be celebrated? You can manipulate the spirit to fit your argument (like what I just did with that last question), because it’s a subjective gray area. And to call for Phil’s head on a stake when he was so clearly out of tournament contention for taking advantage of a rule that late in the game is just ass backwards. If anything his double putt should be praised by the old heads. They should thank Phil that a meaningless shot showed how that rule could be exploited, and I’m sure there will be a detailed “Mickelson Rule” that pops up soon to prevent this from happening again. So now you’ll get your black-and-white, crystal clear rule that prevents a double putt like this and protects whatever your version is of “the spirit of the game.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Because then Phil, being the self-aware, common man he is, played it up for everyone on Sunday when he parred the 13th.
He gave his signature celebration after he hit the putt and was fist pumping as the fans cheered him on, and I don’t know how you can look at that and say that Phil should have been DQ’d. He was part of the most iconic moment of the entire tournament, and then the showman in him played up a par putt as he was finishing up a major light years away from the lead, and it was still incredibly entertaining to everyone watching.
He still has to wait another year to try and complete the career grand slam, but this past weekend further solidified that Phil is my guy and can still captivate an entire sports audience with ease.