February 01, 2010

Shooting Angles with Phil Mickelson

This past weekend, a feud erupted between pro golfers Scott McCarron and Phil Mickelson. McCarron accused Mickelson (and a couple of other pro golfers) of “cheating” for using wedges with square grooves, rather than V-shaped grooves. This is a rather arcane technical dispute, but essentially square-grooved wedges are felt to create more “spin” on the golf ball, allowing players better control of the ball. In a sport that over the past two decades has evolved into a technological arms race for ever-better clubs and balls, having superior wedges can give a player a significant edge, which can translate into more victories, prize money, and endorsements.  Thus, it was hardly surprising that the PGA Tour adopted a new rule this year banning square-grooved wedges. Due to a 1990 legal settlement between the rules governing body USGA and golf equipment manufacturer Ping, however, certain Ping square-grooved wedges made prior to 1990 are considered legal equipment.

Of course, no good loophole goes unexploited. After learning that a couple of other PGA golfers had played with pre-1990 Ping wedges, Mickelson decided to do the same. He located a pre-1990 Ping wedge with square grooves, bent it from 60 to 64 degrees, and used it in this past weekend’s Farmers Insurance Open tournament. Knowing that Mickelson and several other players were using the square-grooved wedges led to McCarron’s comments about “cheating” during an interview. Predictably, Mickelson denied cheating and suggested that he had been "slandered"—possibly a veiled threat of a defamation lawsuit?

Now, it’s clear that Mickelson was not cheating, as his use of the wedge was technically within the rules. But it seems to me that his use of the wedge falls within the realm of what poker players call “angle shooting”—taking an action technically within the rules, but intended to gain an advantage not contemplated by the rules, or even contrary to the spirit of the rules. In poker, angle shooting often involves tactics related to betting or showdown intended to take advantage of inexperienced or unwary opponents.

Angle shooting isn’t limited to poker, however. It probably occurs in any sport or game. Off the top of my head, I can think of several examples:

  • In basketball, the "Hack a Shaq" strategy involves intentionally fouling a player who does not have the ball, in the belief that the player is a poor free throw shooter. The strategy forces the team to attempt to score with a poor shooter at the free throw line, rather than through the normal course of play, or alternatively, to remove the poor free throw shooter from play (the player being fouled is usually a talented player the other team would like to see on the bench).

  • Also in basketball, after high schools adopted the three point shot, for a few seasons, fouls on three point attempts only resulted in two free throws. So, teams holding a three point lead late in a game would intentionally foul shooters attempting three point shots, knowing they could only score a maximum of two points via free throws. This loophole was eventually closed by altering the rule to award three free throws to shooters fouled attempting a three point shot.

  • In football, until a recent rules change, after an interception, defensive players would seek out and hit the quarterback, ostensibly as a “block” as the defense attempted to return the interception for more yards or a touchdown, but in reality as an attempt to shake him up with a hit that in the normal course of play would result in a personal foul penalty.

  • Returning to golf, in the 1999 Phoenix Open, Tiger Woods hit a ball that came to rest directly behind a boulder that weighed at least 1000 pounds. Woods used a technical provision in the rules that allowed spectators to assist in moving “loose impediments” to move the boulder out of his line of play, even though the rule was intended to apply to objects like twigs, leaves, small rocks, dead animals, and the like. Moving the boulder probably saved Woods at least two strokes, which in pro golf can be the difference between winning and not making the top five—in other words, a serious change in prize money. 

  • Looking at the current wedge controversy, it seems more than a little odd that Mickelson went out of his way to find a 20 year old golf club. Since Mickelson is widely regarded as one of the best wedge players on the PGA Tour, it is unlikely he would’ve sought out this obscure square-grooved club unless he felt it gave him an advantage over the V-grooved wedges mandated by the new rules. So, Mickelson’s use of the wedge is technically permitted by the rules. But, his use of the wedge seems motivated by the intent to circumvent the spirit of the rules and gain an advantage over those who follow the rules rigidly. It's angle shooting, and it reflects poorly on Mickelson's judgment.

    POSTSCRIPT: After my original post, another report came out in which McCarron denied calling Mickelson a cheater:

    "I responded, 'It's cheating and I am appalled Phil has put it in play,'" McCarron stated. "I never called Phil Mickelson a cheater.

    --Reported by Jason Sobel, ESPN.com
    Seems a pretty fine splitting of semantic hairs. If McCarron claims that using a particular wedge is "cheating," and Mickelson is using that wedge, basic logic supports the valid conclusion that McCarron thinks Mickelson is cheating.


    1. Interesting post. I think you missed maybe the greatest sports angle shoot/rule abuse of all time in Billy Martin protesting George Brett's home run because of too much pine tar. That was so obnoxious that they shot down the protest and made them play the rest of the game months later, if memory serves.

      I think the stupid end-of-game timeout situation in the NFL now borders on that as well with regard to field goal attempts.

    2. Good call on the Pine Tar incident. The plate umpire that game was Tim McClelland, who was in his rookie season. Had to suck to be caught between Billy Martin and George Brett. Incidentally, McClelland also was the plate umpire for the Sammy Sosa corked bat game.

      McClelland lives in the Des Moines area, and years ago I refereed several AAU basketball games where he was coaching his sons' teams. He is a tall guy (easily 2-3 inches taller than me, and I'm 6'4") and has this huge booming voice. But he is also one of the nicest coaches I've ever seen in terms of how he handled players and refs. He routinely is given high ratings from MLB players, and I can see why if he treats them in the same manner as I saw him coach.