Tom Sorensen

Golfer Phil Mickleson cheated at the U.S. Open. Here’s what that proved to me.

Does what Phil Mickelson did to get a two-stroke penalty at the U.S. Open on Saturday change the perception of him among the general public? Maybe not the way you think.
Does what Phil Mickelson did to get a two-stroke penalty at the U.S. Open on Saturday change the perception of him among the general public? Maybe not the way you think. AP

A guy can go from hero to heel in the course of a game, tournament, a wrestling match or a race. At Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1989, Rusty Wallace spun Darrell Waltrip. This was on the fourth turn of NASCAR’s all-star race, at the called The Winston.

Waltrip was the heel going in, Wallace was the hero. After the spinout, and Wallace’s subsequent victory, roles changed. Suddenly Waltrip was, if not good, less bad.

But you can’t stay mad at Wallace. He’s one of those guys. You can’t.

Can you stay mad at Phil Mickelson? Mickelson is rarely Mickelson. He’s Phil, and Phil has long been the hero. Bring up his name and somebody will put a cell phone, show you a picture of him or her with Phil, and talk about what a great guy he is. Happened to me this week.

But at the U.S. Open Saturday, Phil did something you might. He missed. He missed a putt. He badly missed a putt. His ball went rolling downhill past the hole, and it was going to roll so far that you wanted to wave to it. Be sure and write.

Instead, Phil sprinted after the ball. He took off. Gentlemen, start your engines. Rusty would understand. Let’s say Phil raced a Carolina Panther. We’ll pick somebody at random. Run your finger down the roster and randomly stop. Mine stops at 6-3, 346-pound Dontari Poe. Phil smokes him.

Phil reached the ball and stopped it as it was still rolling, a two-stroke penalty.

Purists are put off. This is a man beloved, a man that was serenaded with happy birthday to you Saturday – he turned 48 – as he walked the Shinnecock Hills course. He would have been serenaded if he walked down the street.

Golf is a testament to rules. I get it. It’s a gentleman’s game. I get that. But some of these gentlemen watch a tournament on TV with one hand on the remote and the other on the phone. They look for a violation. And if they see one, real or imagined, they call the tournament and complain.

SHINNECOCK HILLS: “Hello.”

FAN WITH PHONE: “Hello. I need to talk to an official. Phil cheated.”

SHINNECOCK HILLS: “We heard.”

Do these same fans call the NFL when they believe Ryan or Matt Kalil held or the NBA when they believe that LeBron James traveled?

NBA: “Hello.”

FAN WITH PHONE: “I need to talk to talk to an official. LeBron traveled. Hello. Hello? Anybody there?"

NBA: "No."

Phil made a mistake, a lapse that will neither undo him nor his sport. He’s still a good guy, and he will still be serenaded no matter where he goes.

You know what he did? He proved he was human. I like my athletes that way.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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