Tour players accuse Phil Mickelson of ‘cheating’ with old clubs

The PGA Tour season’s not even a month old, and we’ve already got our first major controversy. Phil Mickelson has played exactly 18 holes, and he’s smack-dab in the middle of it.

At issue are new club groove rules that went into effect on Jan. 1. Long story short: golfers were using specially-cut grooves on their clubs to spin the ball more sharply and play more effectively out of the rough; the penalty for putting a shot into the rough was thus minimized. So the USGA and the Royal & Ancient, two of golf’s major governing bodies, decreed that such grooves were illegal and could not be used on Tour starting this year. (For more detail, check our handy guide to the new rules right here.)

However, golfers are expert at wiggling their way out of tough situations, and they discovered that a lawsuit Ping filed against the PGA Tour and the USGA way back in 1993 exempted wedges made before 1990 from the new rules. (Don’t try to figure it out, just accept it.) Lo and behold, what should turn up in the bags of golfers like John Daly and Phil Mickelson but some vintage Ping Eye 2 wedges, clubs that are old enough to legally drink.

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The golfers’ decision to squeeze through the loophole hasn’t sat well with many of their peers. “It’s cheating, and I’m appalled Phil has put [the grandfathered club] into play,” Scott McCarron, a three-time Tour winner, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “All those guys should be ashamed of themselves for doing that … As one of our premier players, [Mickelson] should be one of the guys who steps up and says this is wrong.”

“I don’t like it at all, not one bit,” added Rocco Mediate. “It’s against the spirit of the rule.”

Mickelson conceded at a Wednesday press conference that while he knew the Eye 2 clubs didn’t conform to the new rules, they nonetheless were legal, and that was good enough for him: “All that matters is it’s OK under the rules of golf.”

Ah, there it is: the “rules of golf.” To a great extent, the USGA has no one to blame but itself for this situation. If the USGA allowed the Pings in, it can’t then turn around and arbitrarily say they’re not legal. Golf is defined by its rules, and selective enforcement here is no more justifiable than, say, taking a free drop when your ball doesn’t end up exactly where you’d like it.

But … golf also is a sport of self-policed rules. You call your own fouls. And from that standpoint, it makes sense that other players would expect Phil to step up and say that the spirit of the law ought to take precedence over the letter of the law. If he were to publicly distance himself from the clubs, plenty of other pros would, too.

Regardless, this is an early reminder of how it’s going to be for Phil. In the absence of Tiger Woods, with the expectation that Phil will take over the No. 1 slot, every move he makes will be scrutinized, dissected and criticized. And if he wins, it’ll only get that much worse.

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