How maddening is golf?
It even broke Bobby Jones once.
Jones, by all accounts, was one of the great American gentlemen of sports, one of the iconic sporting figures of the 1920s alongside Babe Ruth and Red Grange and Jack Dempsey, the only man to ever win a calendar-year Grand Slam, founder of the Masters, coiner of the famous term with which, late in his life, he described Jack Nicklaus: “He plays a game with which I am unfamiliar.”
Before that, though, he was a kid like most kids, big on talent, short on accomplishment, light on patience, when he played the 1921 British Open at the St. Andrews Old Course. In the third round, at the 11th hole, after taking either four or five whacks to get out of a hill bunker, he simply picked up his ball and went back to the clubhouse.
Legend has it that, in case anyone missed the point, he also tore his scorecard to smithereens. (Either way, I’m sure Twitter went berserk.)
So, yes: your first reaction to Phil Mickelson cracking up on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills on Saturday may have been to excoriate him, crucify him, label him with any 10 of your favorite adjectives to aptly describe his decision to jog after the ball after hitting an indifferent putt — no, really, that happened — and then to hit it again while it was still rolling — no, really, that happened, too; it was like a hockey player going for a goal and an assist …
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” his playing partner, Brit Andrew Johnston, said, laughing. “It was a moment of madness.”
Well, as we said: Golf can be a maddening sport.
And as we also know, golf expects its master practitioners to, essentially, be eunuchs in bright-colored pants, expressing as little emotion as possible, betraying nothing in the way of real feelings. Serious golfers can write stanza after stanza of poetry about the honor with which they play the game. Golf writing can easily go purple-for-purple with baseball writing.
And Mickelson, mostly, has led an exemplary golfing life, even if his failures have become a little Shakespearean through the years. You’ll recall the blockheaded way he all but kicked away the 2006 Open at Winged Foot on the 72nd hole, and how he gave a quote for the ages afterward, one that belongs in Bartlett’s: “I’m such an idiot.”
He actually would’ve been better off repeating those four words Saturday as opposed to his tedious defense that he meant no offense, that he knew the rules, that other people should “toughen up” if they took umbrage at his behavior. And while it’s true golfing folks tend to take themselves more seriously than Constitutional Law, this is also true:
Have you ever seen that before? Ever? Especially from someone who us probably one of the 20 or so best players who ever have lived?
“I’ve had multiple times I wanted to do it,” Mickelson told Curtis Strange before enduring a good interrogation by the world press, “but this was the only time I actually did it.”
Saturday also happened to be Mickelson’s 48th birthday, when even the pleas of Long Island locals who have adopted him each time he has visited Shinnecock Hills and Bethpage Black couldn’t deliver him. He actually gave a brief glimmer of hope, birdieing No. 4, and Fox, desperate for a surrogate for an absent Tiger Woods, latched itself to Mickelson and prayed for he best.
That was fleeting. By the time Mickelson reached the green at 13 he had bogeyed five out of seven. As 20-handicappers the world over declare routinely: the wheels had fallen off. His Open was already done …
And then …
Well, look: Rory McIlroy once up and quit the Honda Championship. Tiger Woods’ on-course tantrums and scatology could make longshoremen blush. Even Nicklaus, after drilling the putt that gave him the 1970 British Open, threw his putter in the air, a no-no of decorum anyway, especially since it nearly brained his opponent, Doug Sanders, on the way down.
“It wasn’t disrespectful of me or the Open,” Johnston insisted, and if the man who was closest to Mickelson during his meltdown can feel that way, perhaps the rest of us can take a deep breath, too.
Mickelson took his two-shot penalty, took a 10 for the hole, took an 81 for the day, and was treated to one last huge roar when he got up-and-down on 18 and didn’t seem fazed that he nearly broke the internet in two. Of course, all the way on the other end of the leaderboard, Dustin Johnson also reminded us what a maddening game golf can be, and it’s Johnson, not Mickelson, who is supposed to be the sport’s loveable knucklehead.
Somehow, Johnson didn’t lose his mind. Not for the whole world to see, anyway.
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