Another wild day at the office for Lefty

1/30/2010 - Golf Phil Mickelson

SAN DIEGO -- The wayward drives, the remarkable recoveries, the goofy grins or all manner of highs and lows are usually what mark a day on the golf course for Phil Mickelson.

But while all that occurred during a wild round of 70 on Saturday at Torrey Pines, his words afterward suggested something simmering beneath the surface.

The golfer charged with making us forget about Tiger Woods finds himself at the center of another golf controversy, not all of it his doing.

Sure, he is playing with a golf club that only technically conforms to the game's confusing rulebook. But the key is the Ping club in question is legal and allowed.

And yet that did not stop a veteran player on the PGA Tour from referring to Mickelson as a cheater.

"We all have our opinions on the matter, but a line was crossed and I just was publicly slandered, and because of that I'll have to let other people handle that,'' Mickelson said.

Asked if he was considering legal action, Mickelson said: "I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I think the tour will probably get on top of it.''

Yeah, maybe a bit late.

Clubs with square grooves were banned beginning Jan. 1 per United States Golf Association rules.

But a loophole remained, with the Ping Eye 2 club grandfathered in due to a 1990s court ruling: Any such clubs made before April 1, 1990, would be considered legal -- even though the same specifications would not conform if any other brand name were stamped on the same club.

As time wore on and club technology changed, the bygone ruling faded into the background.

Until this year, when a few shrewd players realized they could use that club. Call it taking advantage of the rules, because that is exactly what Mickelson is doing. Not cheating.

But Scott McCarron, a three-time PGA Tour winner, suggested that very thing, and the "C'' word can take you over one of Torrey's cliffs when used in a golf context. And McCarron did it not once, but twice. Given a chance to clarify his remarks on Friday, McCarron did not back off.

"Do I feel anybody who is using the wedge is cheating?'' McCarron said. "I still feel pretty strongly about it.''

McCarron missed the cut here at the Farmers Insurance Open, so he was not available for comment Saturday. But you can bet someone from the PGA Tour reached out to him -- after someone in Mickelson's camp reached out to the PGA Tour.

After first refusing to comment on the situation Friday, the tour later issued a statement in which it declared the matter was still being studied and that the club in question was legal. But it made no mention of McCarron's comments.

On Saturday, after headlines with "Mickelson'' and "cheater'' in the same sentence popped up across the country, the tour saw fit to slap wrists with rulers: "Because the use of pre-1990 Ping Eye 2 irons is permitted for play, public comments or criticisms characterizing their use as a violation of the Rules of Golf as promulgated by the USGA are inappropriate at best.''

It is quite possible that McCarron, a member of the tour's Player Advisory Council and a former member of the Policy Board, could be fined, suspended or both for his comments.

But we'll never know unless he informs us, because the tour does not announce such discipline.

One clue might come next week at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles, where McCarron is listed as part of the field. If he suddenly withdraws, perhaps that is your answer.

Still unclear is if the PGA Tour can implement a local rule banning the pre-1990 Ping clubs. It does so in other ways, such as when it invokes lift, clean and place as a condition of play. The one-ball rule is also a PGA Tour rule, not part of the USGA's rules.

But the court ruling complicates the issue.

"It's ridiculous, isn't it?'' said Ernie Els. "Basically all the governing bodies stood back and let the players handle the whole issue again. It's almost a little too late now, because all the damage has been done already. Some players have spoken out against other players, which we don't want to see out here on tour, and it's unfortunate.''

No doubt, hearing a player mention slander after a round of golf is a new one.

There may have been times Mickelson wanted to make such a charge after hearing descriptions of his game, but never in such a serious situation.

Saturday's round was vintage Phil. He hit one shot off the side of a cliff, another into the water, and yet another into a tree that could not be found. So anxious were local fans to help him that one climbed up to try and identify the ball for him.

"That was a hell of an effort,'' said Jim "Bones'' Mackay, Mickelson's caddie. "He was definitely taking one for the team.''

Because Mickelson could not identify his ball, he had to go back to the tee on the seventh hole, resulting in a double-bogey. But at the 13th hole, he knocked a 3-wood onto the green from 270 yards to set up an eagle. Then at the last hole, he got up and down for a par after knocking his approach in the water.

A ho-hum 70 for Mickelson, leaving him 4 shots back of third-round leader Ryuji Imada and in a tie for fifth place.

Mickelson said he'd be dialing up swing coach Butch Harmon to discuss a few swing oddities, hoping to rally for his 38th career victory Sunday.

He didn't say if another call would be going to his lawyer.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.