Mickelson fends off cheating charges

SAN DIEGO -- Phil Mickelson found himself Friday fending off charges of cheating because he is using a golf club that is deemed to be legal only due to a technicality.

Mickelson, making his 2010 season debut at the Farmers Insurance Open, walked off the North course after shooting 67 at Torrey Pines to eye-opening accusations made by veteran PGA Tour player Scott McCarron, who believes it is wrong that Mickelson -- or anyone -- be allowed to use a Ping wedge that is conforming because of a long-ago lawsuit.

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

A day earlier, McCarron had said: "It's cheating, and I'm appalled that Phil has put it in play."

In the mild-mannered game of honor and integrity, to use the word "cheating" is akin to accusing someone of theft.

McCarron is making a serious charge when, in fact, Mickelson is in compliance.

"This whole groove thing I think has turned into a debacle," said Mickelson, who said he was disappointed that McCarron called him out when the real issue should be with rules makers.

Mickelson, the second-ranked player in the world and owner of 37 PGA Tour victories, was not happy about a new grooves rule mandated for this year that makes it more difficult to spin a golf ball, especially on shots out of the rough.

He was frustrated when he sent in clubs to be tested that were deemed to be conforming but were still not approved. Meanwhile, the Ping club is not conforming but is approved.

It's enough to pass this off as another of golf's confusing, quirky rules, but we're talking about Mickelson, whose integrity has never been smudged.

Mickelson was unaware of the Ping loophole until two weeks ago when he read that tour players John Daly and Dean Wilson were using old PingEye2 wedges that were made before April 1, 1990. Although the clubs were not otherwise approved for play, those made before that date have been grandfathered in due to a lawsuit the USGA settled with Ping.

Mickelson, who had several of the clubs at home, decided he'd experiment with a 60-degree wedge that he had bent to 64 degrees. He has it in his bag this week.

"My clubs are approved for play, and I take that very seriously not to violate any rule," Mickelson said. "It's not my job or the job of any of the players to try to interpret the spirit of the rule or the intent. I understand approved or not approved. I didn't make this rule. I don't agree with the rule, but I'm abiding by it."

McCarron, who has won three times on the PGA Tour and is a member of the tour's Player Advisory Council, feels the tour should have stepped in to ban the club -- despite the USGA settlement -- or at the very least players should not use it.

"The USGA made this rule and we're all abiding by it," he said. "Obviously it makes a difference. Take a guy like Phil Mickelson, who is going to do a lot of testing, knows how his grooves are doing, and he's under contract with another company [Callaway] and he's going to play that [Ping] wedge. So for me that tells me that it obviously makes a difference."

"I think cheating is not the right word to use," said PGA Tour player Robert Allenby. "But it's definitely an advantage. ... I just believe that even if they are legal, you shouldn't be using them. Just because someone has a couple sitting in their garage somewhere or they've got them off eBay or wherever. I just don't think that's the integrity of the game."

When Allenby made his comments, he didn't know Mickelson had one in his bag. "Oh, he's using one this week? Well, I have no comment there. I'll be a good boy," Allenby said.

Last week PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem termed it "a bit of a loophole" and said "we just don't see any competitive advantage, any material competitive advantage to a player going back and getting a club that was made pre-1990."

On Friday the tour issued a statement saying that it would monitor the situation and "we do have the ability to make a local rule which would not allow the clubs. There's been no decision made at this time."

There are some who might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, Daly has been using the Ping wedges and they haven't helped him much. He missed the cut two weeks ago in Hawaii, and Friday he was so frustrated with his game he claimed he was quitting.

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