Scottish Open: Phil Mickelson absence leaves Rickie Fowler in crossfire

Phil Mickelson plays a practice round at Gullane on Tuesday

If, and probably when, Phil Mickelson bumps into Rickie Fowler at Gullane on Thursday, he should do the decent thing and take the man for a drink. A large one. Maybe two. Maybe a a whole gallon.

In Mickelson’s absence from the home of the Scottish Open on Tuesday – he decamped to Carnoustie for the day – and in his refusal on Wednesday to talk about his rules violation at the US Open last month, questions were instead directed at his mate, Fowler. Rickie walked into the crossfire and took one for Team Phil.

Has Mickelson’s reputation suffered as a consequence of what happened on the 13th green in the third round at Shinnecock Hills? “A lot of players got a laugh out of it,” Fowler replied. You wouldn’t call it cheating? ‘No…’ He knowingly broke a rule, though…’Well…’

Fowler did the best he could in trying to justify an event that continues to dog Mickelson and has, it seems, caused him to make himself scarce this week.

Some background here. In every sense, Mickelson is a champion of the Scottish Open. A winner in 2013 and a mainstay competitor who is about to make his 13th appearance in the event, you could set your watch by the American in weeks like this.

There is always a Mickelson press conference in the days before the championship starts and every single time he comes across like a one-man tourist board. Down the back of the room you can practically hear the golf club members and tournament sponsors purring. Thoughtful and engaging; Phil in full flight. There was one year – Loch Lomond, Castle Stuart, Royal Aberdeen or Gullane – when he mentioned the word ‘fun’ 17 times in his interview.

This week has been different. Mickelson was at Gullane on Tuesday, but he opted not to speak. Normally, he’d play the ProAm on the Wednesday, but he opted out of that as well. Highly unusual stuff.

Why? You can only presume that he wants to avoid questions about the 13th green at the US Open when, in the midst of a horror third round on a horrendously difficult course set-up that was frying the Mickelson brain, he ran after a moving putt and batted it back towards the flag before it disappeared off a green with an official reading on the stimpmeter that wasn’t so much a number as a noise: “Aaaarrggghhhh!”

Mickelson knew what he was doing. He said so. He knew that he’d get a two-shot penalty for putting a moving ball which, he reasoned, was a better option than letting it skate off the green to God knows where. It was a deliberate act. In the aftermath he told his critics – some of whom called for him to disqualify himself from the final round – to “toughen up”.

Later, of course, there was the contrition. He sent a text message to a select group of reporters. “I know this should’ve come sooner, but it’s taken me a few days to calm down. My anger and frustration got the best of me last weekend. I’m embarrassed and disappointed with my actions. It was clearly not my finest moment and I’m sorry.”

Since then, he’s done a very brief and very soft interview with the Golf Channel during which he said that he hoped that people would soon be able to laugh about what happened.

Gullane, we thought, was going to be the first time when he sat down and took every question about a bizarre incident that has unquestionably damaged his closely-protected image, at least to an extent.

Rickie Fowler speaks to the media at Gullane

You could tell that much by just walking and talking around Gullane on Wednesday. From a snap poll of 30 players, commentators and spectators, criticism of Mickelson was running high. Has the episode impacted on his image? Close to 70% said it had, no doubt about it.

With Mickelson out of the picture it fell to Fowler, and later Patrick Reed, to take some of the heat. “I don’t think it [the moment on the 13th green] was meant in any bad way,” said Fowler. “He wasn’t trying to necessarily gain anything on the field because he could have let it [the ball] go and taken an unplayable and saved himself a shot.”

The problem with that analysis is that Mickelson, himself, has already said that he was, indeed, trying to gain something on the field. He deliberately and knowingly broke a rule to gain advantage. Some would call that unethical. Some others might call it cheating.

“I feel like you would see it, potentially, at maybe a local club on the weekend and someone’s frustrated,” said Fowler. It’s unclear as to what kind of local clubs Fowler frequents, but anybody trying to pull that trick in this part of the world might find themselves in physical danger. Try it in your next club championship and see what happens. Actually, don’t.

Fowler went on: “I didn’t see it as something negative.” At this point, Rickie was probably making a secret vow to wrap a 5-iron around Phil’s neck for putting him in the unenviable position of having, as his mate, to defend him.

After Fowler came Reed. Was he disappointed in Mickelson’s actions? “Honestly, I can take it or leave it. It’s one of those things. I hope I never put myself in a situation like that. I hope I never get that upset to do something like that. Every golfer has done something that they regret in their past, on the golf course or off the golf course.”

Phil Mickelson walks to the scorers hut after his third round at the 2018 US Open

True. One member of the Scottish Open field, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of getting caught up in what he described as a “firestorm” said this: “If Phil had come out on the Saturday night of the US Open and said, ‘You know what, guys, I lost the plot out there, the golf course got to me, I did something stupid and I’m sorry about that’ then we probably wouldn’t still be talking about it now.

“If he’d said, ‘I’ve taken the decision to withdraw from the final round’ [he offered to withdraw but the USGA told him there was no need to] then he might have turned a negative into a positive. People would have said, ‘Fair play, Phil. You did the classy thing there’.

“What’s really interesting is the fact that he didn’t do that. That surprised me. He was 100-over par at the time, so he wasn’t winning. Why not withdraw and change the story? It would have make him look good. Phil is usually excellent at public relations. That’s the thing that surprised me.”

A few months back, when having a pop at Brandel Chamblee, the former player and now outspoken analyst for the Golf Channel, Mickelson said he only liked people who “build up the game… I like people who promote it for what it is…”

What happened on 13 at Shinnecock, and the fact that Mickelson said later that he thought about doing the same thing on many occasions, is promoting the game, how? In his own words, Mickelson needs to toughen up and speak openly about this at some point soon.

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BBC Sport – Golf

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