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Phil Mickelson's one-ball controversy further exposes 'Rules' confusion

You can't play a game without rules, and we've been led to believe that the so-important-they-must-be-capitalized Rules of Golf are so black and white that there is no room for any gray areas.

But there is the peculiar situation of Phil Mickelson on the seventh hole of his Friday four-ball match at the Presidents Cup, during which he broke a somewhat obscure rule, was assessed an even more obscure penalty and later was found to have been given the wrong advice for that violation -- none of which could be overturned.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the situation: Mickelson put a different model ball into play than he had started with on the par-5 hole, one which would potentially offer extra yardage off the tee. That might sound like an underhanded ploy, but it could also be considered a veteran move. There's no one-ball rule -- Rule 5-1, as it is commonly known -- during Ryder Cup competition, but the rule does exist in the four-ball portion of this event.

After realizing his mistake and reporting it to a rules official, Mickelson was told it was a "loss of hole" penalty and was disqualified from playing the remainder of the seventh hole. Only half of that was correct. Even though he and partner Zach Johnson did indeed lose a hole to International team opponents Jason Day and Adam Scott, the rules committee didn't realize until after the fact that Mickelson could have continued playing that par-5, with his score counting toward the match.

Mickelson picked up his ball, and Day won the hole with a birdie, essentially giving his side a 2-for-1 special. They entered the hole all square, and Mickelson and Johnson walked off 2-down.

In sports, mistakes happen, and officiating mistakes happen pretty frequently, even with the checks and balances and video replay technology available. This ruling might not have been the equivalent to a Seattle Seahawks player batting a fumbled ball out of the end zone on Monday Night Football, but it wasn't too far off.

There's a bigger problem here -- and it has nothing to do with the point that the teams halved after eventually splitting the match.

In golf, in which rules aren't just rules but official, black-and-white Rules, the follies of both parties involved should only further alienate those who might have otherwise been inclined to play and watch the game. Think of it this way: If a player competing in his 11th Presidents Cup didn't know the rule, and the governing rules committee didn't know the proper penalty, what hope is there for the rest of us?

For years, every organizing body in the sport has instituted and supported grow-the-game initiatives aimed directly at garnering more interest worldwide. In the aftermath of this situation, even those who believed they understood the Rules were left muttering questions to themselves.

If a match is 2-down after 17 holes, shouldn't they keep playing in case this happens again?

The answer is no, unless there's reason to believe lightning could strike twice.

Does the one-ball rule apply in other tournaments?

For those events run by the PGA Tour, European Tour, USGA, R&A and others, yes; for those run by the PGA of America, no.

That time I hit an entire sleeve of balls into the pond and finished the hole with a Slazenger range ball -- was that a violation?

Trust me, that was penalty enough.

The rules -- sorry, Rules -- serve as the game's ultimate catch-22, its theoretical double-edged sword. Without them, competitions would be anarchy, everything left as a judgment call. With them, they often take on all the fun of commercial law, precise language of a rulebook affecting the results.

When you use a foot wedge to move your ball from behind a tree, that's a you problem. When one of the game's most experienced players unknowingly commits a violation and then is given improper advice by a committee whose very job is presiding over the rules, that's a golf problem.

After Friday's match -- which continued with Mickelson raking home a long birdie putt on the 11th hole and dunking an approach shot from the fairway bunker for eagle on the 12th before Day clinched a half-point for each squad with a 7-foot putt on the final green -- Mickelson was asked for his take on the situation.

Never one to shy away from a bulletin board quote or impart some timely sarcasm, he said, "I feel like we spotted the International's best team two holes and they still couldn't beat us. Just saying."

Those words served as the perfect epilogue to a scenario that confused Mickelson, had the rules committee dumbfounded and left the rest of us baffled as to how much gray is actually included in golf's black-and-white Rules. It also left us wondering: If they all got that one wrong, how many other important rulings have been similarly misinterpreted over the years?

Just saying.