Phil Mickelsons stroke at a moving ball in U.S. Open: Should he have been disqualified?

Hi all.

A lot has been written about the recent incident in U. S. Open about Phil Mickelson striking a moving ball, so I will do it short:

1. Facts.
Mickelson celebrated his 48 years Birthday Saturday but – hopefully – it was not the best one ever.

At hole 13 (par 4) his putt was a bit too strong, and the ball just kept rolling on the fast putting green. Mickelson therefore decided to run to the ball and – while it was still rolling – to strike it back towards the hole, to avoid it from rolling down the slope and far away from the hole.

You can see the incident here:

2. The Rules of Golf.
As a starting point Mickelsons situation is encompassed by two Rules:

1) Rule 14-5 states that you are not allowed to make a stroke to your ball in motion.
2) Rule 1-2 states, that you are not allowed to do actions with the intention to affect the movement of the ball.

No matter which of these Rules, you are breaching, you will incur a two stroke penalty and must play the ball as it lies (unless you are disqualified – see below).

There are two differences, though:

1) Rule 14-5 states, that the player has made a stroke (which you have not under Rule 1-2).
2) You can be disqualified for a serious breach of Rule 1-2 (not for a serious breach of Rule 14-5).

Therefore it is important to find out which rule applies in Mickelson’s situation.

But which rule applies, then? Both Rule 1-2 and Rule 14-5 has something to say about that:

  • Rule 1-2 states that an action which is expressly prohibited by another rule is not encompassed by Rule 1-2 (but by the other rule).
  • Rule 14-5 states, that Rule 1-2 applies, when it concerns a ball purposely deflected or stopped e.g. by the player.

Thus the conclusion is very simple: Since he made a stroke at a moving ball, Rule 14-5 applies, and he incurred two penalty strokes and should play the ball as it lay. He could not be disqualified under Rule 14-5, and furthermore he could not be disqualified under Rule 1-2 (since it did not apply).

By the way a USGA representative told that Rule 33-7 could not be applied – Rule 33-7 states that a player committing a serious breach of the etiquette section can be disqualified.

3. Mickelsons reaction.
A lot of people have showed their anger or frustration on social medias about Mickelson not being disqualified, and has come up with many (good and bad) arguments why he should be disqualified. But as stated above the Rules seems clear.

Some of the frustration and anger from the media and from other players etc. probably also is caused due to  Mickelson’s reaction after the round. Probably most people expected him to (and hoped he did) say something like “I am so sorry – that was so stupid – I really apologize”. But he did almost the contrary by stating that he had merely used the Rules of Golf to his advantage and that people, who had a problem with that, should “toughen up”. And he said by the way, that he had thought about playing a moving ball in several situations earlier but just had not done it!

Though, after a few days of thinking – and a few days of social media storm – he apologized.

4. Unplayable?
Quite a few people have correctly noted that it would have been wiser for Mickelson to deem the ball unplayable (when it had come to rest) with a one stroke penalty, and then play from the spot he last played. That would have saved him two strokes (since he made one stroke to the moving ball and incurred two penalty strokes – the ball though ended up closer to the hole after the stroke to the moving ball than before the stroke).

But doing that would also have the risk, that his next stroke (again) was too long…


By the way Mickelson had a 10 on that hole (par 4) and signed for a 81 on the round Saturday – and ended tied 48 Sunday.

Let us (for all) hope, that Mickelsons 49 years Birthday is better.


PS: Foto from Fox


7 responses to Phil Mickelsons stroke at a moving ball in U.S. Open: Should he have been disqualified?

  1. Bob Thompson July 8th, 2018 at 13:07

    The statement that Rule 33-7 could not be applied for a breach of Rule 14-5 is nonsense. Rule 33-7 states very clearly that disqualification can be applied in exceptional individual cases, and this case was indeed exceptional. How would the PGA have reacted if Mickelson had “stroked” that racing ball into the hole at the time it was just a few inches from the hole?

    Why a USGA official should refer to etiquette in this case I do not know. Rule 33-7 certainly refers to breaches of etiquette, but that has nothing to do with this particular case.

    • Dagbone July 10th, 2018 at 16:32

      I agree that the phrase “could not” is inappropriate, at least without clarification. I suspect (but don’t know for certain) that Committees are expected to impose 33-7 only as a last resort in circumstances not directly addressed by the Rules or Decisions. Since this circumstance definitely IS covered by the Rules, then the penalty prescribed in the Rules must be applied. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be capricious and arbitrary.

  2. Peter Scott July 9th, 2018 at 17:34

    The “conclusion” made is incorrect in my opinion. I agree that Rule 1-2 defers to Rule 14-5. Since Rule 14-5 becomes the arbiter, the exception to it’s own rule must now be applied. In this case Rule 14-5 specifically spells out the decision here by saying that one exception to this rule is the case, such as here, where the player purposely deflected the ball in the opposite direction. Michelson admitted that his action was purposeful. Calling it a stroke doesn’t mean that it cannot also be a deflection. A deflection is an action by the player to alter the current direction of a moving ball. In this case, the action was both a stroke and a deflection so Rule 14-5 says Rule 1-2 now applies and the decision is conferred on Rule 1-2. As a result one must use Rule 1-2 for the final decision. To me, this is a case where the intention of the rules is to penalize a player’s intention to deflect a ball regardless of how it is done, in this case by making a stroke which resulted in a deflection of the ball.

    • Dagbone July 10th, 2018 at 16:52

      Unfortunately, Mr. Scott, it’s not that simple… we don’t actually know what a “deflection” is. This term is not included in the Definitions section of the Rules. So even though your definition seems reasonable on the surface, it may or may not meet the USGA/R&A’s criteria.

      In contrast, we know exactly what a “stroke” is, because it is defined in the Definitions section of the Rules. So while I agree with you that the action was definitely a “stroke” according to the Rules, I’m not so certain that it was also a “deflection”, strictly speaking.

      Furthermore, I would hate to open the door to giving players the ability to argue that their “stroke” was, in reality, just a mere “deflection” and thereby possibly extract themselves from sticky situations. Ruling as you suggest might establish such a precedent, to the detriment of the game in my opinion.

      I think the USGA got this one exactly right.


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