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PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 4: Phil Mickelson signs autographs outside the scoring area during the first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club on February 4, 2010 in Pacific Palisades, California. (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

LOS ANGELES (Feb. 3, 2010) – Phil Mickelson prepped for his two-time title defense of the Northern Trust Open Tuesday with a round of golf with friends at another Los Angeles course. That night he attended a PGA Tour players meeting at Riviera Country Club.

It was a regularly scheduled event but the primary topic was the groove issue that has embroiled the Tour since last week. Mickelson was one of several players who put a Ping Eye 2 wedge in play. In his case it was to experiment with the club, but also to expose a loophole in the rules pertaining to golf clubs. That wedge is approved by the USGA and Tour despite not conforming to the current standards. In San Diego Scott McCarron called it, “cheating,” that the players who used the wedge “should be ashamed,” and that “Phil should be one of the guys stepping up and saying this is wrong.”

After being stabbed in the back last Thursday, Wednesday morning Mickelson buried the hatchet.

“Scott came up to me and sincerely apologized,” he said. “We all make mistakes and say things we wish we could take back. I’ve done it a bunch in my career. It’s also not easy to come up and face that person, look him in the eye and apologize. He did that and he was sincere. I appreciate him being a big enough man to do that.”

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said, “With respect to a particular player that used a particularly unfortunate choice of words . . . there is no justification . . . but the reaction was stronger than it could have been had we more intensely last year got in front of players with the details of this rule.”

While Mickelson was conciliatory toward McCarron, he underscored his contempt for the way the new standards have been implemented by the USGA and followed by the Tour, two of golf’s governing bodies.

“It’s killing the sport.” Mickelson said of the ambiguity he feels the USGA has allowed to exist. “It’s killing the manufacturers and the players. We don’t understand the rule and it needs to be changed.”

Finchem said that the Tour will begin to explore the process of disallowing use of the pre-1990 Ping clubs by use of a local rule. It is a cumbersome process that will not have anything resolved soon. But last week John Solheim, the president of Karsten Manufacturing, which makes Pings and came to the agreement with the bodies in the early ‘90s, said he would be open to discussion with the USGA and the Tour.

Mickelson is not using the offending wedge this week at Riviera.

“I like and respect these players,” said Mickelson, who lauded them for their show of support last year after Amy’s breast cancer announcement. “Out of respect for them I do not want to have and advantage whether it’s perceived or actual. My point has been made.”

But he also said, “If these governing bodies cannot get together to fix this loophole, if players stop using this wedge, which would stop the pressing of this issue, then I will relook at it and put the wedge back in play. I hope the governing bodies get forced into changing their rule-making process. I hope there’s more transparency among the governing bodies.”

And then he went out onto the range to warm up for his pro-am round and enjoy a sunny afternoon on a course where he’s won for the last two years.

LA JOLLA, CA - JANUARY 31: Phil Mickelson stretches on the 12th tee on the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open on January 31, 2010 in La Jolla, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO (Jan. 30, 2010) – Thursday was anxious Phil. Friday was struggling Phil. Saturday at the Farmers Insurance Open was it was Old Phil, playing from the trees, brilliant around the greens and moving up the leaderboard. It was a hold-on-to-your-hat 70 that left him at 9 under par for the tournament, four shots off the lead and playing in the third-last group on Sunday.

With all that going on it was easy for Mickelson to put aside what might have been a major distraction, the media fallout from Scott McCarron’s assertion that Mickelson was “cheating” by using an approved but non-conforming club.

Asked about all of that again on Saturday, Mickelson repeatedly said, “We all have our opinions on the matter but a line was crossed. After being publicly slandered I’ll let other people handle it.”

After hitting one of the first eight fairways and four of the last six, he left the course hoping to get some help from Butch Harmon, too. He had a text from his star pupil before Mickelson left the scoring trailer at Torrey Pines South.

“It’s disappointing because I was hitting it so well coming in here I was ready to start two weeks ago,” said Mickelson. “I think I was a little anxious, a little amped up, trying to hit it too hard. My timing and rhythm were off. It’s not far off and I think I can fix it.”

Saturday had it all: a par save from so far left of No. 4 that another few feet and he would have been playing his second from Black’s Beach, 300 feet below. And another on 18, where his second from the light left rough found the water fronting the green but after a spinning pitch he made an 8-foot putt.

There was the double bogey on 7 after his drive stayed in a massive eucalyptus tree and could not be identified, followed by a another drive that was slightly longer and wider left of the fairway.

There were the three birdies, two on par-5s thanks to his short game and one on 15 where for only the second time in the round he hit the fairway and green on the same hole in regulation. And there was the eagle on the long 13th. The really long 13th. There he hit the day’s longest drive, 324 yards to the heart of the fairway and a 269-yard 3-wood to 9 feet hole-high left.

“I’d been blocking everything so bad I was aiming way right, in the middle of the green,” said a grinning Mickelson, whose ball still ended up left, just above a rough-covered slope. “Turned out I pushed it just perfectly.”

So he scraped it around Torrey Pines again, this time having more fun, more luck, and, as he’d hoped after Thursday’s 70 left him in 40th place, continuing to build into the weekend. He was six shots and 39 players behind the leader that evening; Sunday morning he’ll be four back with just four guys four guys in front of him.

“If I throw in something in the mid- to high-60s,” he said, “I think I have a very good chance.”


SAN DIEGO (Jan. 29, 2010) – He had a so-so ball-striking round but he made two key putts to close out the round day so Phil Mickelson shot 67 and gained a share of 10th place just four shots behind the co-leaders in the Farmers Insurance Open.

“I made all the tough par putts and kind of salvaged the round,” said Mickelson. Two of those came on his closing holes on the front nine at Torrey Pines. On 7, a slicing downhill six-foot birdie putt raced more than four feet past. He made that coming back. On the next hole, after missing the fairway, coming up short and hitting a poor putt, he made an 18-footer up and over a ridge. And after a left-rough, right-rough attack on the par-5 9th, a 40- putt rolled uphill, broke left and dropped into the hole for birdie.

That prompted big smiles all around but the fun ended right about there.

On Thursday Scott McCarron, upset with Mickelson’s decision to use a wedge that is on the USGA and PGA Tour approved list but does not conform to current design standards, said, “It’s cheating. I’m appalled that Phil put it into play. As one of our premier players he should be one of the guys who steps up and says this is wrong.”

So rather than talk about moving up 30 spots on the leaderboard or hanging in on a tough day, Mickelson faced a barrage of questions about his reaction to McCarron and the issue of approved but non-conforming clubs.

Mickelson said of McCarron, “I don’t agree with the way he carried on about it but that’s his choice.” And then he added, “I agree with (McCarron and others). I think it’s a ridiculous rule. It’s not up to us to interpret what the interpretation of the rule is. I understand black and white. I think any player is allowed to play those clubs because they’re approved.”

Mickelson had tested his Callaway wedges extensively and was happy with them. When he very recently learned of the loophole in the USGA and PGA Tour ruling, that Ping wedges made before 1990 were legal to use, he grinded off about six degrees of bounce on an old lob wedge and put it in the bag. He said Wednesday the difference in performance between the two marginal. He reiterated that Friday and said he wasn’t committed to using the non-conforming but approved club throughout the year.

“There’s a very good chance that I’ll switch back,” said Mickelson, “but not because I feel I’ve been doing something wrong.”

In a way this was a very familiar scene.

On the eve of his 2003 season-opener at Torrey Pines, Mickelson was quoted in a Golf Magazine story as saying, “I know (Tiger) hates it that I fly it past him now. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he is stuck with.” His, “inferior equipment” crack immediately erupted into an inferno. Woods passed it off by saying, “We all know how Phil is” . . . and, “That’s just Phil being Phil.”

But two years later Woods acknowledged Mickelson had been right.

In a December 2005 Golf Digest story, Woods was quoted as saying, “I didn’t originally go along with the equipment changing everyone else was doing, and I got left behind. There were guys hitting the ball farther than me who I used to outdrive, no problem. My swing changes have given me some distance, and I got with the technology.”

Friday Mickelson said, “This whole groove thing has turned into a debacle. We have these grooves that in my opinion are not legal, are not conforming, but they’re approved for play. And then we have testing methods that are totally different amongst our governing bodies. They’re not on the same page and it’s been very frustrating to try to figure out what you can and cannot play.”

At some point in the coming months or years we may see if indeed this flap was a case of déjà vu all over again.

First up, though, is a 9:15 tee time Saturday morning with Tom Pernice Jr. and Lucas Glover.