Phil Mickelson and Ethical Leadership

For over 20 years the governing bodies of golf in America – USGA and PGA – have known that what are called “square grooves” on the face of golf irons – as opposed to the traditional V groove – create significantly higher spin rates and make it eminently easier to control the flight of a golf ball out of the rough. Prior to the advent of square grooves, it was difficult for golfers to anticipate the reaction of a ball hit out of deep rough. Sometimes the ball would “fly” and go further than expected; other times it would fall short. In essence, the inability to control the ball out of the rough was considered to be the “penalty” for lack of driving accuracy and keeping the ball in the fairway.

The introduction of square grooves in the 1980s virtually eliminated this “penalty” and ushered in the era of “grip it and rip it!” Those golfers with the ability to hit the drive with the vengeance of a cheated wife could do so with no concern for accuracy, since the square grooves would allow them to hit the ball out of the rough with as much accuracy as those hitting from the fairway. (The introduction of square grooves coincided with the introduction of urethane-covered balls, designed to respond even better to the new grooves.)

Both the USGA and the PGA felt this change “tilted the field of play” unfairly in favor of the player who could hit it long as opposed to those who specialized in accuracy. The governing bodies of golf felt that prior to the introduction of square grooves the game was fairly balanced between a combination of distance and accuracy. Thus, virtually all players are given a fair opportunity to win.

Leveling the Playing Field

In an effort to redress this “unbalancing” of the professional golf game, the PGA announced that starting in 1990, square grooves would be banned. This led to three years of contentious litigation with Ping golf company. The case was settled out of court and Ping wedges with square grooves produced prior to 1990 were “grandfathered” in and continued to be legal on the pro tour.

Then, in 2007 the USGA – which sets the rules for all non-professional golfers as opposed to the PGA that sets rules for the pro-golf tour – announced that as of January 1, 2010 all square groove clubs would be banned. Considering there are millions of recreational golfers using clubs with square grooves (with, as we know, little real impact on our game) the USGA had a phase-in period for their rule – banning new clubs but exempting existing clubs. Wanting all of golf to be governed under consistent rules, the PGA followed suit by also banning the grooves on the same date. Unlike the USGA, the PGA instituted an immediate change for all clubs. Of course, the PGA was still restricted by its legal settlement with Ping, so for technical reasons had to “exempt” Ping clubs made prior to 1990.

And, this leads us to our problem.

It is clear that the specific intent of the PGA rule is to correct the unfair advantage the square grooves offers to the long hitters on the tour and bring back the desired competitive balance of distance and accuracy. However, there is the 1990 loophole in the rule. Golf is renowned for and prides itself on being a game of integrity. With that in mind, the PGA operated under the assumption (always a bad thing to do) that the golfers would understand and comply with the intent of the new rules. They were wrong!

During the first full-field tournament of the year it became public that John Daly was consciously circumventing the intent of the rule by using irons that had been manufactured prior to 1990. He was attempting to use the loop-hole in the rule in order to give himself an advantage over the other golfers. The general reaction to Daly’s action was bemusement. It was John Daly being John Daly. After all, Daly had not been competitive in the game since he played fat and drunk. No matter what clubs Daly used, no longer did anyone view him as a threat to play well.

However, at the next tournament in San Diego, the pot began to roil. It was the first tournament of the year for Phil Mickelson. Certainly Mickelson is one of the leaders and marquis players on the PGA Tour. With the absence of Tiger Woods it could be claimed that Michelson is the Tour’s number one draw. Well, in San Diego, Mickelson (renowned for being long and wild off the tee) let it be known that he was taking advantage of the loophole in the “square grooves rule” by using irons manufactured prior to 1990.

There was an immediate and heated reaction to his decision. It was one thing for John Daly to thumb his nose at the rule, but quite another for Phil Mickelson, an acknowledged leader on the tour. At best, other golfers said Mickelson was “unethical” and at worse one golfer called him a “cheater.” Being called a cheater on the PGA tour is the without doubt the most severe rebuke a player can receive and stains him for life. (Just ask V. J. Singh.)

Let’s be clear here. By his actions Phil Mickelson was not unethical and he certainly was not cheating. Mickelson did what is done in business every day. He complied with the letter of the law, if not the intent. He was ethical in the sense that he did the right thing that was required to be done. Using square grooved clubs manufactured prior to 1990 was not cheating; it complied with the rule. However, what Phil Mickelson failed to do was to live up to his status not only as a leader on the PGA tour, but to his place as a role model for thousands of young golfers.

Phil Mickelson was presented with and passed on the opportunity to elevate himself to the level of being a true ethical leader. (The most disappointing element of this is that he did so in order earn a few extra dollars!) The ethical leader is one who does the right things that are not required to be done.

Mickelson could have reaffirmed the ethics of golf and his position as a leader and role model (45 professional wins) if he had stood up and said, “Look, we all know what the intent of the rule is and we all know there is a loophole, but the right thing to do – even though it is not technically required – is to comply with the rule.” That would have been ethical leadership – doing the right thing that is not required to be done. But Mickelson failed to do so and in so doing he failed himself, golf and those who view him as a role model.

And the Moral of the Story …

Mickelson is certainly not alone in his failure to show ethical leadership. He is unfortunately more the norm than the exception. He acted the way most other leaders are schooled and act. The accepted philosophy of leadership is that so long as it is not illegal; it is okay to do anything possible – even if it is not really the right thing to do – to achieve your objective. This storm around Mickelson will pass (he may even be goaded into not using the wedges), but the opportunity for Mickelson to rise above the rest to achieve status and recognition as a true ethical leader has also passed.

That is unfortunate because our young people need role models to teach them that being an ethical leader means doing the right thing, even if it is not required to be done, and that is far better than attempting to game the rules.

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