Why Phil Mickelson’s criticism of the latest rule change is flawed

by | Oct 15, 2021 | PGA


Michael Bamberger

October 15, 2021

Phil Mickelson fired shots on both the USGA and PGA Tour this week.

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Drama, as every student of Showtimes Golf-themed Billions knows, is fueled by conflict, and now golf has a new drama up its sleeve in its own special way. The USGA, which works with the PGA Tour and other organizations, has in its staid way announced a new local rule for tournament golf that limits the length of a driver to 46 inches. Phil Mickelson, well-known left-handed provocateur and one of the most decorated players in USGA history, lets everyone know he’s not happy with this new rule and argues it over Twitter in comically moderate language.

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You might be tempted to say that USGA officials are the southern state attorneys for Billions while Phil is Bobby Axelrod, a former caddy who now lives big and flies privately. That would be completely inaccurate.

It is true that Mickelson, like Bobby Ax, never showed much interest in authority figures of any kind. Like Bobby, Phil likes to push known or perceived boundaries.

The highly intellectual and sometimes verbose USGA doesn’t do everything right, of course, but it does exist to give golf the structure it needs. It is a noble thing. A game without rules is a playground for everyone.

Mickelson, 51, who has had one of the longest and greatest careers in golf history, won the PGA championship with a 47.9-inch shaft in May. He won a PGA Tour Champions event in Jacksonville, Florida last week with a driver who was also a tad under 48 inches with a 5.5 degree loft. Children, don’t try this combination on your home course without parental supervision. Golf balls are expensive.

On the way to victory last week, Phil Mickelson fielded a driver who was nearly 48 inches tall.

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Mickelson, the son of a pilot who grew up in tech-savvy Southern California, has always had an interest in clubs and tech. When Phil was in high school in San Diego in the mid-1980s, metal drivers began to make an impact in golf, but the gold standard driver of that era still had a kaki head the size of a peach at about 11 Degree of attic connected with a 42.5-inch steel shaft.

The boys brag about their blonde “oil-hardened” MacGregor Eye-o-Matics in the last few days of the Sansabelt slack. They were high-performance works of art. But Mickelson won the US amateur in 1990 at the mile-high Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver with a metal punch with a 45-inch shaft to which he had added an inch for the occasion.

He pushed back then and is still there 31 years later. What a run. All the urge is probably one of the things that keep him young. Also his sunglasses (cool!) And hair (elongated and not gray!) And tweets (funny!).

How you judge the language of Mickelson’s latest driver length tweets probably says something about how you feel on the subject.

His opening salvo:

“Stupid is whoever does stupid.” Mrs. Gump. But the amateurs are really trying their best to rule the professional game, are they stupid? Or the rental professionals?

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Strange. Not exactly.

The USGA is not run by amateurs, despite Mickelson’s claims. It is a not for profit operation run by trained professionals who work with all different and competing groups in the sport of golf, including the PGA Tour. It is correct to say that the PGA Tour has a long history of using USGA rules, with a few exceptions.

His successor:

It is extremely disappointing to learn that the PGA Tour has adopted the new USGA rule through the media. I don’t know of any player who has anything to say or represent on this matter. I know many wonder if there is a better way.

Not exactly.

Rory McIlroy is chairman of the tour’s board of players. Jon Rahm, Billy Horschel, Justin Thomas are all represented on the 16-member board. Okay, maybe Phil hasn’t known Harry Higgs, who’s on the board, that long or that well. But they had a mind-boggling, lengthy money game last summer organized for everyone to see through the magic of Twitter. “I don’t think it’s going to make that much of a difference, but I’ve been to all of these meetings when we’ve been discussing it for quite a while and I think the majority of the players are okay with that,” McIlroy said in a CJ Cup this week -Press conference on the new stock limits.

Phil Mickelson shows a thumbs up after winning the Champions Tour

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Mickelson’s low opinion of the USGA is difficult to understand. He was the low amateur at the 1990 US Open, the USGA’s flagship event. A few months later, he won the US Amateur, the USGA’s debut dance, the event that has launched hundreds of careers. He played on the victorious Walker Cup team of the USGA in 1991 in Portmarnock, Dublin. His 1990 US amateur victory got him into the 1991 Masters, where he was the low amateur, hanging out with Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, Hord Hardin (the club chairman) and Jim Nantz at Butler Cabin when it was all over. At the US Open ’91 he was again the low amateur.

Yes, of course it was Phil’s immense skill that earned him the jewelry and the team jacket and the special chair in the basement of Butler Cabin. But without expert administration by the USGA, there would be no competitive game at all. Augusta National has close ties to the USGA, starting with Bobby Jones, a USGA high priest and founder of Augusta National. As for Phil’s record of six USGA silver medals for his six runners-up at the US Open, that’s mind-blowing. It puts his career in a category of its own.

Without expert administration by the USGA, there would be no competitive game at all.

The basic question is this, and it has an obvious answer (for most people): Should a governing body tell us the regulated different limits and tolerances for the equipment we play with. My answer is natural! Want to see a yard-high tee so all you can do is hit line-drive hookshots over the shortstop, like a major league candidate grooving his swing from a tee in a batting cage? The USGA says 46 inches is long enough. Well, if you’re Jordan Hahn, the 6-foot-8 touring pro, you might argue that 46 inches isn’t long enough for you. This is a problem for which there is no easy solution. But on the whole, 46 inches seems like a reasonable limit. There must be a limit, right?

Well, Phil clearly likes 48 inches, and 49 could be next. That is his prerogative to make the case. But it is the USGA’s obligation to keep the game healthy and to hold on to a semblance of tradition.

However, when the tour announced that it would be adopting the 46-inch limit, it used this cautious language: “The PGA Tour Player Advisory Council recently reviewed the issue and we have concluded that the PGA Tour is the local Rule will be implemented on January 1st. 1, 2022. “This indicates that Phil can still use his 47.9-inch rider on the Champions Tour. And who knows what the future will bring. Perhaps Phil can find other places to play outside of the relatively short range of the USGA where he and his tall driver are welcome.

Michael Bamberger looks forward to your comments at [email protected]

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent almost 23 years as Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated. After college he worked as a newspaper reporter, initially for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote a variety of Books on golf and other subjects, the latest of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in several issues of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a US patent The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016 he received the Donald Ross Award from the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.