Story of the U.S. Open — Brooks Koepka, the USGA or Phil Mickelson?

When it comes to the U.S. Open Championship, one would think that the major storyline would be about the golfer who won the event. That is usually the case, though to be truthful, the difficulty of the course set-up is also a topic. Frequently the two combine to be the talking point, as in so-and-so survived the brutal conditions to prevail.

This year was different. To be sure, a golfer winning back-to-back U.S. Opens will get plenty of press. Were the conditions as benign as last year at Erin Hills where 16 under par won the event? No, the USGA was not going to make that mistake again. Shinnecock Hills was tough, particularly on Saturday — moving day — when Phil Mickelson startled all golf fans by doing something that has not been done for nearly 20 years.

If you are reading this column, you are likely a golf fan and you know what Phil did. Just in case you forgot, Phil ran after his putt on the 13th green as it scurried past the hole and was surely heading off the green. When he caught up with the ball he simply hit it back toward the hole. Striking a “moving” ball is a two-stroke penalty and hadn’t been done since John Daly did that very thing at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

Daly was a bit of a character and his action did not surprise a lot of people. Mickelson however, is one of the game’s greatest and well liked players. His gaffe shocked the golf world.

I’ll talk more about Lefty in a little while, but for now let’s talk Brooks Koepka. Going into last year’s Open, Koepka was a little known pro who had won just once on tour. He had played all over the world, but did not have a lot of success. Then he went out and captured his first major at Erin Hills, a course that played a lot easier than a typical U.S. Open venue.

A wrist injury had limited his playing time in 2018, so even though he was the defending champion, he was not given a lot of consideration at Shinnecock Hills. Dustin Johnson led after two rounds and was the only golfer under par. He struggled on Saturday when survival was the goal.

By Sunday many golfers were in contention, but it was Koepka who prevailed by making some incredible putts. His 1-over-par final score was more to the USGA’s liking, and it was good enough to win. I doubt if anyone will overlook Brooks Koepka next year at Pebble Beach. Three wins — two of them U.S. Opens, back to back no less — Koepka seems to thrive when the conditions are tough.

Speaking of tough conditions, the USGA has a goal in mind when setting up U.S. Open courses. That goal is to make it the toughest conditions of any tournament. They grow the rough, shave the edges of the greens (which are usually ridiculously fast) and put the pins in places that are extremely difficult.

Do they go too far? I’ll let you decide that answer to that question, but I don’t get any pleasure in watching professional golfers get embarrassed. A true test of golf yes, but not something that is nearly impossible to play. Zach Johnson suggested that the USGA “lost” the course on Saturday. I don’t know exactly what that means, but the USGA responded by easing up on Sunday.

It was Saturday that had everyone buzzing however. That’s when Mickelson, frustrated more than likely by the course conditions and his own play, decided he had had enough of the 13th hole. He was not in contention when he snapped and did the inexcusable. All golfers know you should never do what he did. It’s simply wrong to intentionally strike a moving golf ball.

He compounded his problem by laughing about the display for the rest of the round. When he was asked about his reasoning after the round, he again surprised many people by suggesting he knew the rule — he would get a two-stroke penalty — and therefore should not be criticized, but applauded for being a student of the rules. What????

Though supposedly he offered to withdraw later on Saturday, he was still defiant on Sunday. That also distressed some in the golf world. Later in the week, he apologized — suggesting he was frustrated and that his actions were inappropriate.

John Daly was vilified by the press after his incident. He was frustrated by the USGA and the way they make courses too difficult, saying that very thing afterward. Mickelson was seemingly given a pass because he is Phil and beloved by many. Personally, I don’t think it should make a difference which golfer takes this action. Whatever your thoughts are about the tactic, you should feel the same way about whoever does it.

So do you think the punishment fits the crime? Is a two-stroke penalty appropriate or should disqualification have ensued? Here’s my take.

The USGA and the Royal and Ancient have collaborated on making rules changes that will begin next year. The main purpose of those rules changes is to simplify the rule book with an eye to speeding up play. After Mickelson shocked the golfing world, the announcers cited two rules which came into play. The USGA decided the two-stroke penalty was appropriate under the circumstances because it was not a serious breach of the rules.

That’s where I have a problem. Daly finished last of those who made the cut in 1999. Mickelson did not do the same last week. He earned a paycheck that disqualification would have taken away.

I think it’s time to make another rule change. If this was not a serious breach of the rules I’m not sure what is. I do not consider myself a golf purist — primarily because I’m not sure what that means — but Phil should have been disqualified. If there is nothing in the rules that make that possible, change the rule.

I’d hate to see golfers repeat the behavior of Daly and Mickelson in the future. Disqualification would likely ensure that it doesn’t, or at the least give a fitting punishment to their behavior.

Al Stephenson is The A-T golf columnist.

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