The birthday wishes may have been the highlight of the day for Mickelson, who hit the right front corner of the green with his second shot, only to watch the ball roll off the false front. Mickelson saved par and picked up a birdie on the fourth hole to get back to 5 over par, but that was the end of the trail for the possibility of a third-round rally.
What happened later in the round was almost beyond comprehension.
Mickelson drove into the sand on the par-5 fifth, blasted across the fairway into knee-deep rough, pitched out and made bogey. He was 10 over by the time he arrived at the 13th, and that hole produced one of the most bizarre episodes of Mickelson’s long career.
Mickelson took four shots to get his ball on the green on the short par-4 and face a slippery, left-to-right-breaking downhill putt for bogey. The ball missed to the low side with too much pace and started to head down the slope toward the front of the green.
With the ball still in motion, Mickelson stepped quickly past the cup and redirected his ball back toward the hole. It burned the edge and finished 5 feet above the hole. He missed that putt, and with a two-shot penalty for striking the ball in motion, Mickelson left the hole with a “10,” leaving him 15 over for the championship at that point.
The incident bore close resemblance to John Daly’s frustrated “polo” stroke of a ball rolling back toward him on the eighth hole at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999 and left Mickelson with plenty of questions to answer at the end of his round.
Mickelson’s playing partner, Andrew “Beef” Johnston, was first to take questions from reporters, saying, “I had to ask myself, ‘Is this really happening?’
“I said (to Mickelson) ‘That's one of the strangest things I've ever seen,’ and then just started laughing, to be honest. I said I'm sorry, but I've got to laugh at this… I've never seen anything like it. It's something you might see at your home course with your mates or something. But it was just a moment—I think it's just a moment of madness.”
Mickelson laughed, too, and waited for a rules official to tell him what he already knew, that he would be assessed a two-stroke penalty for violating Rule 14-5, hitting a ball in motion. Lefty said that was preferable to playing ping pong across the green.
“Look, I don't mean disrespect to anybody,” Mickelson said. “I know it's a two-shot penalty. At that time, I just didn't feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot over.
“I took the two-shot penalty and moved on. It's my understanding of the rules. I've had multiple times where I've wanted to do that. I just finally did.”
Mickelson, who finished with an 81 and is 17 over par through three rounds, indicated he acted out of calculation and not frustration.
“I’m not playing as well as I would like but I don’t feel like it’s frustration that crept over,” Mickelson told Metro Golf Magazines’ Lee Spencer. “I had fun. Beef and I had a great time today. People here have been tremendous. They’ve made my birthday very special and I’m very appreciative of that as well as coming here for two decades. The people here are just incredible.
“I just took two shots and moved on because I didn’t want to keep hitting it back and forth. That’s all there is to it… I’d still be out there potentially. I took two shots. Moved on. And got to play the next hole.”
(Curtis Strange, Phil Mickelson: Photo by Lee Spencer/Metro Golf Magazines)