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February 02, 2010

Daily Flogging: Phil Mickelson needs a spin doctor in this grooves flap

Posted at 12:04 PM by Gary Van Sickle | Categories: Grooves, Padraig Harrington, Phil Mickelson, Ping

Somebody gets it, but Phil Mickelson obviously doesn't. Neither does John Daly. Nor, apparently, does three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, who reportedly has been practicing with some of the controversial pre-1990 Ping Eye2 square-grooved wedges and may use them this week at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.

Columnist Derek Lawrenson of Britain's Daily Mail understands the consequences of the Ping clubs. Check out this headline over his story: "Please, Phil Mickelson, golf can't take another cheating scandal."

This is the outbreak of reaction to Phil using the Ping clubs last week at Torrey Pines, which prompted fellow tour player Scott McCarron to say anyone using the clubs is "cheating." That led to a weekend rebuke in an official statement by the PGA Tour, which clarified that using the clubs is allowed under the rules and therefore not cheating. And that led to McCarron standing by his comments Monday, splitting hairs by saying that he never specifically called Mickelson a cheater, just accused anyone of using them of cheating. It's a fine point that a good country lawyer named Bill Clinton would understand and nod knowingly at.

Lawrenson gets right to the point with his lead:

Imagine if Phil Mickelson wins the Masters this year by a stroke from Lee Westwood using a vintage Ping wedge that the latter, a Ping contracted player all his professional life, will not touch because he believes it violates the spirit of the game.

This is the unpalatable scenario facing a sport that thought things were bad enough when its best player was caught cheating on his wife.

Now the No. 2 player has been branded a cheat on the course--using a wedge with square rather than U-shaped grooves--and if Mickelson doesn't re-think his ill-conceived move to put this club in his bag, the repercussions are dire. At the moment he is hiding behind the fact he is not technically breaking any rule. However, the court of professional opinion is almost wholly behind Westwood. Mickelson should consider their unforgiving verdict before he decides his next move.

Lawrenson also smartly points out that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club never made the same silly settlement with Ping that the USGA and the PGA Tour did. Thus the Ping wedge is banned by the R&A and can be used only in America. And the idea that Phil might win a Masters or a U.S. Open with it, Lawrenson writes, "doesn't bear thinking about."

Tod Leonard of The San Diego Union-Tribune wondered about Mickelson's motivation for using the Ping club. Was it just Phil being Phil?

Never mind what's right or wrong, Phil's move was bad timing. He had just been given the keys to golf's penthouse, effectively, with the self-imposed exile of Tiger Woods. (Thanks to SI's John Garrity for that penthouse line.) Phil was golf's temporary savior, and then he blew all that good will by intentionally stepping into what he knew would be a full-blown controversy.

Line of the day from Leonard: "Golf needs more controversy right now like Tiger Woods needs another girlfriend." Here's more from Leonard:

The stage was perfectly adorned for Mickelson last week. With Tiger Woods out due to his sex scandal and Mickelson coming off a torrid stretch of play at the end of '09, the golf world was thirsty for the San Diegan to make a statement with his game in his hometown.

Instead, he chose to make a political statement to the U.S. Golf Association and PGA Tour over the grooves issue. And in the process he opened himself up to questions about his integrity and the wisdom of golf's governing bodies.

Everybody's got a black eye on this one, including PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who can't be thrilled that he has to address the issue today at a news conference at Riviera Country Club. Let's make it clear: McCarron was wrong to call out Mickelson and others with the word “cheating.” ... But why would Mickelson even put himself in this position, when it was predictable he would be attacked? Plain and simple, it is Phil being Phil. He wanted to rattle cages with the governing bodies, to make them see how counterproductive their grandfather clause is. He probably got more than he bargained for with McCarron.

The grooves are sure to be a hot topic at Tuesday's Tour player meeting in LA. There was talk of creating a local rule to ban the square-grooved Pings, but Ping chairman John Solheim stepped forward to remind the Tour that according to its settlement, it can do no such thing. Doug Ferguson of The Associated Press reported Solheim's reaction: "While I fully expect the PGA Tour to honor this agreement, I'm willing to discuss a workable solution to this matter that would benefit the game and respect the role innovation has played over the long history of golf," Solheim said.

Ferguson also reported that Harrington arrived at Riviera with two sets of Ping wedges. Meanwhile our own Alan Shipnuck of Sports Illustrated reported that Randy Peterson, Callaway Golf's director of fitting and instruction, said Mickelson's Ping wedge imparted as much as 25 percent more spin than any of the Callaway wedges with new grooves.

One more nugget from Ferguson: Solheim said the controversy did not catch Ping by surprise. He said when the USGA proposed its new groove regulation two years ago, Ping reminded officials of the 1990 settlement. He said he advised the USGA and PGA Tour in a letter dated July 31, 2007, that "what is happening on the PGA Tour today was very much a possibility."

Look for the grooves story to overshadow this week's tournament coverage. It's not over yet, by a long shot.

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