SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Phil Mickelson has always had a Smartest Guy in the Room reputation. Expert on all things. Especially golf things.
Apparently that’s underselling his brilliant mind, though. He must be the Smartest Guy on the Planet. Ever.
If Mickelson’s explanation for his stupefying, run-and-slap putt of a moving ball Saturday during the U.S. Open is to be believed, his brain blows away Einstein’s. He thinks faster in a pressure situation than an ER trauma surgeon.
The way Galileo of the greens tells it, in the middle of a bad hole that was in the middle of a bad round that is in the middle of a bad tournament, he made an instantaneous cost-benefit analysis of breaking a golf rule by jogging six steps to swat his wayward putt back toward the 13th hole and to prevent it from rolling off the green.
A remarkable sequence on Hole 13, where Phil Mickelson was assessed a two-stroke penalty for hitting a moving ball and ended up making a 10 on the hole. pic.twitter.com/kx6ieYiOGR
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 16, 2018
The Enrico Fermi of the fairways decided, on the fly, that the two-stroke penalty that comes with hitting a moving ball was better than having to chip back onto the green and perpetuate the hole, risking an even higher score than the 10 – 10! – he ended up taking.
“The ball was going to go off in a bad spot,” Mickelson said after his preposterous 81 was signed for and in the books. “I gladly take the penalty. … It’s my understanding of the rules. I’ve had multiple times where I wanted to do that, and I finally did it.”
Ah, the enlightenment. And spoken with a straight face.
The simpletons among us figured Phil had a momentary lapse of reason and reacted like a grade-schooler playing miniature golf. And, truth be told, like plenty of grown-ups playing real golf at the local muni.
Thing is, Phil can’t put an “X” on the scorecard like the rest of us. This is the United States Open.
And here’s the other problem with this stunt, and the explanation thereof: It doesn’t fit seamlessly with what those who were with Steve Jobs on that 13th hole Saturday.
This, from playing partner Andrew “Beef” Johnston, on their conversation leaving the green: “He said, ‘I don’t know what score that is or what happens now.’ ”
This from the young man carrying the scoreboard with the group, who said Mickelson told the scorekeeper the following: “Whatever I get, I get. Just let me know what I get.”
Maybe that meant that Mickelson knew he’d incurred a two-stroke penalty but wasn’t sure of his exact score on the hole. But I’m not sure those comments sound like a man who had complete command of that situation and made the calculated decision in the heat of the moment that a penalty was the best play.
Call me cynical, but the explanation offered by the Bill Gates of the gap wedge seems like something he cooked up while playing the final five holes – while he was bathing in the love of adoring galleries who sang “Happy Birthday” to him over and over, to which he responded with dozens of vacant smiles and thumbs-up signs. Or maybe he cooked it up during his extremely long stay in the scorer’s room signing his card, after completing his round with a towering, YOLO flop shot and par putt that thrilled the masses.
This con job was something that allowed him to avoid saying, “I had a human moment and screwed up. I did a dumb thing.” Perhaps when you’re the Smartest Guy in the Room – or on the planet – those are hard words to say.
Owning that moment, embarrassing as it would be, would have put Mickelson and his exalted, ambassador-of-golf image alongside famed renegade John Daly. He took a two-stroke penalty in the 1999 U.S. Open for swatting a moving ball – an angry gesture, not a strategic move.
Daly was ripped throughout the sport for it. Perhaps the excessively image-conscious Lefty couldn’t handle the concept of being lumped in with that guy in Open lore.
So Leonardo da Vinci painted a picture that – surprise, surprise – makes himself look like a crafty genius.
Fact is, admitting that he lost his cool and reacted poorly, with an accompanying apology, would lead to more laughs than rebukes. Tough weekend, out of contention, mailing it in late … not a great look, but an understandable look. Muni hacks everywhere could relate.
The only people tut-tutting that stunt would be the stuffed-shirt golf purists – the drearily serious dopes who phone in violations they see on TV, who lecture on how to mark a ball with integrity, who believe the rules of golf came down from the mountain on stone tablets.
That mindset spawned some of the grave questions Mickelson was asked Saturday. About disrespecting the game, and the Open itself, as if it were a veteran of foreign war.
“If anybody’s offended by that, I apologize,” Phil said in response. “But, you know, toughen up.”
And smarten up, you golfers out there. When you hit a terrible putt, you should be able to do the math immediately and decide whether it’s worth chasing after to wrist-shot it into better position.
After Thomas Edison had delivered his dissertation on how to make a 10 on a par-4 the smart play, he parted the media sea and went to the people. Some probably knew what happened on No. 13, many assuredly did not. All of them showered him with love.
Here was their man Lefty, signing autographs and smiling and posing for pictures. Behind him, reporters tried to process the prodigious spin that had been laid on them. In front of him, the safety net of adoring fans enveloped him.
After a lousy day and a bizarre moment and an unconvincing justification, Phil Mickelson was in his element. A man of the people.
And smarter than all of them.
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