Rules Junkie: The Legality Of The Phil Mickelson/Ryan Ruffels (Alleged) Wager

Everybody loves a good Phil Mickelson gambling story.

There’s the one between Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney before the 2010 British Open; the one with Paul Azinger, Payne Stewart and Ben Crenshaw playing “Hammer;” and countless others that have built up the mystique of Mickelson and his money games. But earlier this month, in light of Australian amateur Ryan Ruffels turning pro, we were privy to another Phil gambling story, via the Sydney Morning Herald

First, the case from Mickelson. Acting as an “interim assistant coach” for Arizona State University for a short period to help out his brother, Mickleson extolled to Ruffels the virtues of the college system in trying to lure him to ASU.

He did so in a famous phone call that we already knew about, but Ruffels also revealed a less known practice round he played with Mickelson in the US.

“We get on the first tee, it’s pretty early in the morning and he says, ‘I don’t wake up this early to play for any less than $2500’,” Ruffels recalled of a friendly offer made to him by Mickelson.

The 42-time US PGA Tour winner gave Ruffels 2-1 odds; if Ruffels won, Mickelson would give him $5000, if he lost, Ruffels would have to pay up $2500 when he turned professional.

“I was a few down through nine but then I birdied six of my last seven to win by one shot and took his money, so that was pretty cool,” Ruffels said with a laugh.

You can imagine the type of trouble this might stir up on two fonts: how could this have affected Ruffels’ amateur status and which, if any, NCAA recruiting violations were involved? This is a golf rules column, so we’ll leave the petty meddling of the NCAA to the geniuses in Indianapolis. 

Now, before we get into the breaking down of the rules, it should be stated that Ruffels and his management team at Wasserman Media Group have refuted the telling of the story in the Sydney Morning Herald. 

“Upon reading the January 15th ‘Next Big Thing’ article in the Sydney Morning Herald and absorbing the subsequent media fallout, we wanted to set the record straight as it pertains to Ryan’s December 21 practice round at Torrey Pines with Phil Mickelson and his brother Tim, who is the Head Golf Coach at Arizona State University.

While it’s no secret both Phil and Tim would love to have had Ryan attend ASU and become a Sun Devil, the timing in the Sydney Morning Herald story was off, and in no way was either recruiting him to do such at Torrey Pines. Ryan had months ago decided he was turning professional at the upcoming Farmers Insurance Open, and that it would be announced yesterday in Melbourne Australia at a media conference at Victoria Golf Club, Ryan’s home golf course. Both Phil and Tim were well aware this was the case.

As for the actual round, Ryan jumped at the chance to get in a practice round for the Farmers with one of golfs legends and a real pro from whom young players can gain valuable experience. The ‘friendly wager’ and the birdie barrages’ reporting is a bit overdone and becoming a media fish story, but rest assured, Ryan had a great time, appreciates Phil and Tim and their willingness to support him during an important step in his development, and looks forward to his career as a professional which begins at Torrey Pines later this month.”

Okay, so believe whomever you want here. Regardless of the truthfulness of the story, the reporting of the story or the refutation of the story, we can agree that it brings up an interesting rules question.

Let’s begin by discussing the legality of the (alleged) wagering as it pertains to Ruffels’ amateur status. According to Rule 3-2 of the Rules of Amateur Status, “an amateur golfer must not accept a prize (other than a symbolic prize) or prize voucher of retail value in excess of $750 or the equivalent, or such a lesser figure as may be decided by the Governing Body. This limit applies to the total prizes or prize vouchers received by an amateur golfer in any one competition or series of competitions.”

This would be an incorrect enforcement of the rule. Mickelson and Ruffels were not taking part in a competition or a series of competitions; it was a friendly round with a little wager on the line. Let’s check out which rule covers that… it would be the Appendix – Policy on Gambling. Seems like this is a fairly common question directed at the USGA if it has its own appendix.

The appendix states that amateurs play for the challenge the game presents, not financial gain. If significant financial gain were on the line, that could lead to manipulation of handicaps, which in turn harms the integrity of the game. Okay, got it. Don’t bet so much that you’ll cheat. Seems fair enough. Keep reading and we come to an “Acceptable Forms of Gambling” subhead, which reads: 

There is no objection to informal gambling or wagering among individual golfers or teams of golfers when it is incidental to the game. It is not practicable to define informal gambling or wagering precisely, but features that would be consistent with such gambling or wagering include:

– the players in general know each other;

– participation in the gambling or wagering is optional and is limited to the players;

– the sole source of all money won by the players is advanced by the players;

– and the amount of money involved is not generally considered to be excessive.

Therefore, informal gambling or wagering is acceptable provided the primary purpose is the playing of the game for enjoyment, not for financial gain.

Ruffels and Mickelson “generally know each other,” check. The gambling was optional and limited to the two of them, check. Both are responsible for their own payment, check. The amount of money is “not generally considered to be excessive,” check? 

While the amount of money could be considered excessive, this is the flimsiest branch to step out on. Mickelson is widely considered to have a penchant for making things interesting on the course and for a guy who routinely carries upwards of $8,000 cash, the amount could be argued to not be “generally excessive” in Mickelson money games.

And then there’s the small matter of Ruffels turning pro, which renders the entire practice moot, but it’s good to have this understanding in your back pocket should you decide to put a sizable wager down on a round with friends and then plan to go play in the USGA Mid-Am

Have a rules question you want answered and explained? Tweet @Wrong_Fairway with the hashtag #RulesJunkie and you could see your question answered in the Rules Junkie column.