Phil Mickelson is heading into this week’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open at Gullane, where he’s no longer being joined by Tommy Fleetwood and Henrik Stenson after they were both late withdrawals, on the back of a second rules infringement in the space of a few weeks.
Less than a month after he intentionally hit a moving ball on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills during the third round of the US Open, the five-time major incurred another two-shot penalty on the last day of the A Military Tribute event at The Greenbrier in West Virginia.
On this occasion, the infringement was for improving his line of play as he tapped down fescue grass close to the tee on the seventh hole. The five-time major winner knew straight away that he’d broken the rules – 13-2 in this case – and had that confirmed by an official.
“I wasn’t really thinking,” said Mickelson afterwards as he tried to explain his actions. “I just had a few bonehead moves today. I’ve been working on this really low shot for the next two weeks and there was some fescue in front that was low, and I stepped on it.
“Right when I did, I thought, ‘oh, my goodness, that might be a penalty’. I told my partner, and we asked the rules official, and sure enough it was. It was just one of those things that I wasn’t really paying attention or thinking.
“If we were on the tee box, no problem. But it was just a foot in front and it’s just one of those things. So you take your penalty and you move on.”
He’s moving on to the East Lothian coast, where he thrilled the fans when winning the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield but it will be interesting to see what reaction awaits him this week on the back of his behaviour at Shinnecock Hills.
In defending him, Rory McIlroy and Tom Watson have both said they felt what Mickelson did on the Saturday was merely a meltdown, even though the player himself claimed it had been something he’d thought about doing in the past.
His mock celebration after holing a putt on the same green in the final round, though, has left a bad taste in the mouth of many and there is no guarantee that Mickelson will receive the same warm welcome in the home of golf as in the past.
Fleetwood had been looking forward to returning to Gullane, where he recorded a top-ten finish behind Rickie Fowler in 2015, but last year’s Race to Dubai winner has decided that a week away from tournament golf after a hectic recent schedule is the best way for him to prepare for next week’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.
“I wanted to play the Scottish, because it’s a great tournament on a course I really like; my result there a few years back actually took me to 47th in the world, which was the highest I’d been at that point. But I feel this is best for me,” said the Englishman in announcing his withdrawal from the $7 million Rolex Series event starting on Thursday.
Fleetwood missed the cut as defending champion in the Open de France a fortnight ago but reckoned that was partly down to a virus. “I don’t want to make excuses, but I was a little under the weather,” added the 27-year-old, who finished second to Brooks Koepka in the US Open. “It was just that I hit two or three shots that cost me and didn’t really hole anything. I only missed the cut by one. It’s high standard these days on tough courses, and if you’re not quite on it, you can easily miss a cut, and then it looks worse than it is.”
Stenson, one of the six players in the last eight years to win the Open Championship – at Royal Troon in 2016 - the week after playing in the Scottish Open, is sitting out this week’s event due to “elbow problems” but said in a post on Twiter that “I hope to be fit for Carnoustie”.
Despite the loss of Fleetwood and Stenson, the Gullane field still boasts five players from the world’s top 20, headed by third-ranked Juston Rose, and 17 from the top 50.