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Apology Reviewed: Did Phil Mickelson Need to Say Sorry for Putting His Moving Ball?

After providing the U.S. Open with a bit of comedy, Lefty expressed remorse. He probably didn’t need to.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Four days after one of the most shocking, controversial, and truly hilarious moments in golf history, Phil Mickelson took to text to apologize for his actions on Saturday at the U.S. Open.

“My anger and frustration got the best of me last weekend,” Mickelson wrote in a text to reporters. “I’m embarrassed and disappointed by my actions. It was clearly not my finest moment and I’m sorry.”

In case you’ve forgotten what this is in reference to, or haven’t been following the backlash-outrage combo on Golf Twitter, Phil didn’t mow someone down with a golf cart, or pull a Happy Gilmore and break a rake out of frustration and throw it into the woods. Mickelson sailed a putt past the hole at the tricky no. 13, and after watching the ball roll, and roll, and roll, and approach a downslope that would have surely carried it back off the green, Mickelson ran after his ball and hit it back toward the hole—while it was still in motion.

It was an illegal move, not to mention a move away from the etiquette that the sport—and many of its fans—prizes above all else. But it wasn’t only the move itself that had people upset—when asked about the play after his round, Mickelson doubled down, saying: “I gladly take the 2-shot penalty and move on. I don’t mean it [to be] disrespectful. If you’re taking it that way, that’s not on me. … If somebody’s offended by that, I apologize to them. But toughen up because this is not meant that way. It’s just simply, I wanted to get on to the next hole, and I didn’t see that happening at the time.”

Mickelson, the six-time U.S. Open runner-up, was assessed a two-stroke penalty by the USGA under Rule 14-5, which states that it’s illegal to make a stroke at a moving ball (my own personal mini golf handbook says otherwise, but that’s why I don’t make the rules). The USGA stood by its decision later in the day, even after Mickelson’s comments and a swarm of tweets and columns called for Mickelson’s disqualification. The USGA could have disqualified him: had the organization chosen to enforce Rule 1-2, which notes that the player cannot take action or influence a ball in play and that the organization has the power to disqualify a player should he commit a “serious breach” of that rule, Mickelson could have found himself watching Sunday’s round from the couch.

But Mickelson was allowed to play on Sunday—he shot a 1-under 69 and celebrated a par at no. 13 like he’d just won the whole tournament—and he kept quiet throughout the rest of the weekend, declining interview requests and refusing to comment on the matter.

There are a few ways to feel about Phil’s actions, even more ways to feel about his comments afterward, and even more ways to feel about the entire saga. I thought it was one of the most entertaining golf story lines I’ve ever seen, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing one of the sport’s golden sons take a jab at the rules, both written and unwritten.

Could the USGA have disqualified him? Sure! Would it have been right to? Potentially! Should he have withdrawn because it declined to? No! Mickelson took advantage of the rule book, on a hole where it’s very likely he would have ended up adding more than just two strokes should he have let the ball continue to roll. The USGA could change this rule in the future, and maybe it should. But the rule stood on Saturday, and it was an avenue that Phil chose to exploit.

Yes, there are much larger implications at play here, and yes, if it was another golfer that committed this Cardinal Golf Sin, it’s very possible that the reaction would have been much different. But Phil said he did what he did knowingly (does it surprise anyone that Phil was the guy to find a loophole?), he explained his reasoning after the fact, and, up until Wednesday, he seemed to have moved on—I know I certainly had.

I don’t know what brought about Phil’s apology—if it was genuine remorse, pressure he was feeling to address the issue, or a PR suggestion—but he probably didn’t need to give it. It doesn’t change his action, or how it will be viewed, and it just gives more ammo to the folks looking for something to fire. Phil is an incredible golfer, with an incredible legacy, and that doesn’t change because of one moment—whether it was a spur-of-the-moment decision or a purposeful competitive play—in a tournament that’s been a source of frustration for him throughout his career. Maybe he felt he owed his fans a further explanation; maybe he was trying to get back on the USGA’s good side; or maybe he just genuinely regrets it. But whatever the reason for his apology, as far as I’m concerned, Phil can keep it.