Why Phil Mickelson should apologize, then withdraw from the U.S. Open

Phil Mickelson didn't see anything wrong with what he did on Saturday. Others disagree. EPA/CJ GUNTHER

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- I'm sorry.

Those are the first two words Phil Mickelson should say publicly Sunday morning after a fitful night of sleep.

I withdraw.

Those are the next words Mickelson should say on his way out of the U.S. Open and into a better and brighter tomorrow.

Mickelson made a mockery of his sport's national championship on his 48th birthday, and he should now do the honorable thing and remove himself from the tournament. He hit his moving ball out of frustration on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills, and then he told a counterfeit tale about his intent. Mickelson said he took a strategic whack at his rolling putt as it headed downhill to accept the 2-stroke penalty rather than risk playing the ball conventionally and taking a score more damaging than the 10 he posted on the par 4.

The cover-up is always worse than the crime. Mickelson turned the one major championship he has failed to win into a mini-golf misadventure, minus the windmill and clown's mouth. Now it's time for him to pick up his ball and go home.

"... 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." Phil Mickelson, on his misstep on the 13th

"I didn't feel like continuing my display, and I gladly take the 2-shot penalty and move on," Mickelson maintained. "I don't mean it [to be] disrespectful. If you're taking it that way, that's not on me. I'm sorry you're taking it that way. It's certainly not meant that way. Sometimes in these situations it's just easier to take the 2 shots and move on."

Actually, sometimes in these situations it's just easier to tell the truth, apologize and withdraw.

After finishing his round of 11-over 81 that left him at 17 over for the tournament, Mickelson spent forever in a scoring room with reporters waiting outside. If he devoted most of that time to crafting a story to feed the news media beast, he came up with a doozy. Mickelson emerged to say that he was merely using the rules to his advantage. Asked whether he is concerned that his standing as a wildly entertaining player might've taken a lethal strike, Mickelson had the audacity to suggest that those who had a problem with his stunt needed to quit acting like wimps.

"I don't see how," the five-time major champ said of potential harm to his reputation, "and 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."

There was a problem with Lefty's story -- a fairly big one. His playing partner, Andrew "Beef" Johnston, said he told Mickelson, "Sorry, but I can't help but laugh at that. It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen." Johnston also had this to say of his exchange with Mickelson: "He said, 'I don't know what that is. I don't know what score that is or what happens now.' And he started speaking to the rules official. It was one strange moment."

The standard-bearer with the group, Connor Buff, a 19-year-old from Smithtown and a student at the University at Albany, said he heard Mickelson tell the rules official, "Whatever I get, I get. Just let me know what it is."

No, as Mickelson's Tuesday golfing partner Tom Brady once said, "This isn't ISIS. No one's dying." Mickelson's legacy as an all-time great and all-time lover of all things New York doesn't go up in smoke because he lost his cool like an overheated motorist on the Long Island Expressway. But he should have come clean on what was clear to all astonished witnesses.

Mickelson has finished second in this championship a record six times, four times in the New York area. The futile pursuit finally broke him. Lefty was on his way to shooting his worst U.S. Open score in more than a quarter-century, and he snapped and did something, as Johnston said, "you might see at your home course with your mates or something. ... I think it's just a moment of madness."

It was one that left the USGA with a tradition like no other -- a rules fiasco that swallowed its signature event whole. John Bodenhamer, a USGA suit, explained that Mickelson was assessed a 2-stroke penalty for hitting a moving ball under Rule 14-5. Bodenhamer conceded that had Mickelson used his putter to stop the ball, rather than swat at it, that action might've compelled the governing body to disqualify Lefty from the field.

But USGA law also says that a "serious breach" of Rule 1-2, which prohibits a player from taking an action with "the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play," may cause its committee to "impose a penalty of disqualification." A serious breach is defined as an action that allowed a player to "gain a significant advantage." Even though he was a million miles out of contention, Mickelson claimed that he hit his moving ball to gain a scoring advantage.

That should've been enough for a disqualification -- if not under Rule 1-2, then under Rule 33-7, which gives the USGA authority to DQ a player for a serious breach of etiquette. Bodenhamer confirmed Saturday night that committee members did consider removing Mickelson from the tournament under 33-7 but decided against it because the rule is applied only in "extreme circumstances." Never mind that the USGA always is the leader in extreme circumstances and that Phil's folly and the unfair late-afternoon course conditions surely qualified.

Mickelson phoned USGA chief executive Mike Davis on Saturday night and told him, "Mike, I don't want to play in this championship if I should have been disqualified." Lefty asked Davis to clarify the USGA's stance on the penalty. If Mickelson was desperate enough to ask for that kind of public support, he surely knew he needed it.

As he jogged after his going, going, almost-gone putt at unlucky No. 13 and then hit it before it stopped moving, veteran golf reporters watching the televised image couldn't believe what they were seeing. Were they watching a tape of a practice round? Was this some kind of practical joke?

Mickelson is the Arnold Palmer of his time, a go-for-broker who never met a layup he didn't hate. Like Arnie, Phil learned early to bring the crowd into the experience with his style, his eye contact, his head nods and thumbs-ups, and his time spent signing autographs before and after rounds.

The fans love him for it, too, and always thank him at the U.S. Open like they did Saturday, after Mickelson's meltdown, by continuing to shout and sing "Happy Birthday" to him as he walked the course.

But the ever-playful Mickelson took it way too far this time. Maybe he was affected by the rollicking presence of Beef Johnston, golf's burgeoning answer to Charles Barkley. Or maybe Mickelson just forgot for a second that he was playing in the U.S. Open, not some rowdy, anything-goes pickup game with friends. Whatever.

Either way, he embarrassed himself Saturday by pulling a page from the John Daly playbook. If you believe Mickelson, you know that he effectively cheated the game and intentionally violated the spirit of a rule. If you believe your own eyes and ears, you know that Mickelson dishonored the championship that he covets the most.

Hitting a moving putt at the U.S. Open en route to shooting an 81? It's like an angry linebacker in the Super Bowl -- with his team down four touchdowns late in the third quarter -- kicking a fumble into the stands rather than recovering it.

Mickelson did himself no favors by saying that he should've called this audible a couple of times at the 15th hole at the Masters. (Yeah, that would've gone over well with the green jackets.) When he was finished selling his story to reporters outside the scoring room, Mickelson accommodated an endless line of thrilled autograph seekers and heard one man invite him to the beach for a beer.

Phil always does the right thing for the fans. Now it's time for him to do the right thing for the game by saying he's sorry, saying goodbye and telling everyone that he looks forward to seeing them at Pebble Beach next June.