An obscure penalty clause, tucked away in the farthest depths of golf’s rulebook, took centre stage at the Presidents Cup in Incheon, South Korea, on Friday after Phil Mickelson changed the type of ball he had been playing with mid-round.
Mickelson and US playing partner Zach Johnson were all square through six against the Internationals’ Jason Day and Adam Scott when Mickelson switched to a harder ball to get extra distance from the tee going into the par-five seventh.
Mickelson teed off but while walking down the fairway was struck with the thought he may have broken a rule and consulted captain Jay Haas and a referee, who raised the issue with the rules committee.
After some deliberation, Mickelson was informed that he had indeed breached four-ball regulations and was disqualified from that hole, leaving Johnson to play it on his own against Day and Scott.
Day’s birdie gave the Internationals their first lead in the match, but the officials were just getting started.
Realising they had incorrectly applied the penalty for breaching the “one-ball condition”, officials informed the players that the proper sanction was the ‘adjustment’ of one hole, meaning the United States lost two holes in one.
Despite being incorrectly disqualified, Mickelson was denied the chance to go back and finish the hole as, according to a match committee statement, it could “undermine the strategy already employed by both sides” at the hole.
“The weird thing was I’ve never heard of a match adjustment penalty,” a bemused Mickelson told a news conference. “Never heard of that. I just thought, ‘okay, well if I hit the wrong ball, no big deal, Zach will cover me this hole. I pick up, put the right ball in play the next hole’.
“But obviously that was not what happened.”
The 45-year-old, who needed a captain’s pick to make the Presidents Cup this year after an average season, was reluctant to blame anyone but himself for the infraction, which put the Americans on the back foot.
They fought back valiantly, however, to halve the match.
“It’s the job of the player to know the rules, and it’s not the committee’s fault,” he said.
“I know they made a mistake and it’s disappointing, but they should not have been put in that situation. It wasn’t a hard thing to just play the same ball throughout the round.”
Mark Russell, Vice President of Rules and Competition for the PGA Tour, told reporters it had be a “strange situation” to deal with and shouldered the blame for making an incorrect call on Mickelson’s disqualification.
“I accept total responsibility for that mistake,” he said.
Mickelson, who has recaptured his best form in South Korea in the 11th edition of the Presidents Cup, took a swipe at his International opponents for failing to drive home their advantage.
“I feel like we spotted the Internationals’ best team two holes and they still couldn’t beat us,” he quipped. “Just saying.”