Who knew that marking a golf ball was a test of character?


That’s Phil Mickelson’s left hand replacing his marked ball on an Augusta National green. Even during a practice round, you’re expected to perform this act honorably. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

AUGUSTA – The mark of Lexi Thompson seems to be an indelible one.

Before Sunday, she was a really good American player on the LPGA Tour, headed for a certain major championship in the ANA Inspiration. Then came the absurd four-stroke penalty for her sloppy work on the green, when she marked her ball and then replaced it ever so slightly but ever so obviously in a different spot.

The raging controversy that has turned an eighth of an inch into a Grand Canyon-sized issue followed golf to the Masters. And here Tuesday afternoon it took an interesting detour.

Phil Mickelson used the Thompson Affair to let us all in on a dirty little secret: The PGA Tour is filled with ball-marking scofflaws. The careless and the conniving are everywhere.

Or something like that.

"I know a number of guys on Tour that are loose with how they mark the ball and have not been called on it," said Mickelson during his wide-ranging Masters news conference. And nobody can range wide quite like Mickelson.

“I mean, they will move the ball two, three inches in front of their mark, and this is an intentional way to get it out of any type of impression and so forth, and I think that kind of stuff needs to stop,” he said.

But Mickelson doesn’t want you the viewer to call 911 and report a player when you see him fudge on the mark. “I think it should be handled within the Tour,” he said. “I think that the Tour should go to those players and say, ‘Look, we’ve noticed you’ve been a little lax in how precise you’ve been in marking the ball. We’d like you to be a little bit better at it.’ And see if that doesn’t just kind of fix the thing.”

In fairness, this is the same Mickelson who has run afoul of the Securities and Exchange commission for profiting on an insider tip and has been a prodigious gambler. An imperfect moral compass, certainly. But the best one we have on this topic at the moment.

And apparently these crimes against putting are nothing new. Jack Nicklaus recalled later Tuesday how three times during his playing days he had quietly gone to a tournament director and reported a playing partner who was outright cheating in the way he marked his ball on the green.

“Nothing was ever said publicly about it,” he said. Stuff stayed out of the public eye back then. They couldn’t get Twitter on their transistor radios.

Good timing on all this nonsense – as the overlords of golf are at this moment attempting to untangle some of their rules (more on that coming in Sunday’s AJC).

In the meantime, beware all you who replace your marked ball a dimple or two closer to the hole than it should be (a Class C felony in this English garden of a world). You have been put on notice.

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