News & Opinion

Patrick Reed, golf's No. 1 villain, strikes again on PGA Tour

Patrick Reed wins 2021 Farmers Insurance Open
Patrick Reed wins the Farmers Insurance Open, though it might have cost him whatever reputation he might have had left in the process.

Reed runs away with 5-stroke victory at Torrey Pines but proves to be game’s biggest loser in more meaningful category: Integrity

It’s official. Patrick Reed is the most hated man in golf.

Hmm. Hated is a strong word. Let’s just say that Reed cemented his place as golf’s No. 1 villain Saturday during the PGA Tour's Farmers Insurance Open when he took a drop after claiming his ball was embedded in the rough.

We’ll never know for sure whether his ball really was embedded. We have our suspicions. We do know that Reed is now embedded in deep you-know-what, image-wise.

You have crossed the point of no-return for what’s “good for the game” when CBS anchor Jim Nantz turns on you. Nantz is your “Hello, friends” guy whose own always-positive view of golf is “a tradition unlike any other.”

After analyst Nick Faldo seriously questioned Reed’s ruling, Our Friend Nantz implied agreement by saying, “The optics are not great.” That’s a guilty verdict in Nantz-speak, and for him, it’s the equivalent of a cursing tirade.

Patrick Reed, you have a problem. Fans don’t like you. Golfers don’t trust you. Even “Hello, friends” doesn’t trust you. Now that’s a problem.

It doesn’t matter that Reed won the Farmers Insurance Open by five strokes. Those one or two strokes potentially saved with that drop didn’t factor in the outcome. But that’s not the point. Neither the victory nor the PGA Tour’s approval of his questionable drop – the linchpin of Reed’s defense – seems likely to change the minds of many observers who thought he violated the ethics, if not the actual rules – Rule 16.3 (“Embedded Ball”), to be precise – of the game.

Long-term, Reed has bigger problems. Sponsors might be less inclined to align themselves with a player who creates rules controversies. Reed is in danger of becoming so disliked that he’s going to endure constant heckling from golf galleries (when they return); he’s going to require security inside the ropes; and maybe worse, he could become such a distraction and pariah that he is a liability for any U.S. Ryder Cup team.

How would the so-called Captain America feel about being left off the Ryder Cup team because of character issues? That’s a polite way to say he’s radioactively toxic, and, oh yeah, nobody on the team wants to be his partner.

There’s a difference between being a self-centered jerk and a cheater. Reed is creating the appearance that he’s both. There is plenty of evidence of the former and so much circumstantial evidence of the latter that it’s difficult to disbelieve. In the court of public opinion, Reed already has lost.

In case you missed it, Reed hit a shot into the rough on the 10th hole Saturday during the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines’ South Course. A volunteer told Reed that the ball didn’t bounce, so Reed informed his playing competitors, Robby Shelton and Will Gordon, that he was checking for an embedded ball. Reed marked the spot with a tee, picked up the ball, poked around in the grass for the hole that it supposedly left, then called for an official.

He should have called one of the other players over before he picked up the ball, but that has become a professional courtesy on the PGA Tour. It happens all the time. Rules official Brad Fabel arrived, they discussed the situation, and Fabel tested the embedded area with his finger and said he detected a “lip” left by a cratered ball. So, Reed got his free drop and made par.

However, CBS replays showed Reed’s ball did bounce, and not very high. It seems unlikely that a ball could embed in thick, 3-inch rough when dropped from a height of perhaps 3 feet. Faldo and later other pundits on Golf Channel and online agreed. Reed even said that if the ball bounced, it was “almost impossible” for it to plug. Later, after he learned that the ball did bounce, he saw nothing wrong with his actions and leaned on his PGA Tour rules official’s seal of approval.

This is where logic and Reed’s history works against him. In 2019, while in a waste bunker during Tiger Woods' unofficial Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, Reed brushed away sand from behind his ball with his club while carelessly taking practice swings. Did I say carelessly? It looked almost as if he brushed the sand intentionally, or at least knew he did.

After the round, upon learning that TV cameras caught his error, Reed argued that those cameras had a bad angle and that he didn’t do anything wrong. He grudgingly accepted a penalty but never acknowledged that he was in the wrong, even after being presented with visual evidence.

Fans got on him about his bunker gaffe, and the memory of that was just starting to fade before last weekend. Now he’s got the embedded-lie story hanging over his head.

That’s not all. He has been a marketing nightmare ever since he arrived on tour. He ruffled a lot of feathers when he won at Doral in 2014 and said he was a top-5 player in the world. Maybe he meant he played like a top-5 player in the world that week or maybe he wanted to say he thought he had the ability to be a top-5 player in the world. It didn’t matter. It was interpreted as ego, and he still hasn’t lived that statement down, not even after winning a Masters four years later.

Winning makes up for character flaws in sports. Reed built his Captain America reputation in the 2014 Ryder Cup, where he and Jordan Spieth made a formidable team. Except eventually, that team split up, apparently because Spieth had suffered enough. Reed once explained why their pairing was so good. In essence, it was because Reed was trying to beat/outdo his partner Spieth, and Spieth was therefore trying to do likewise. Talk about not understanding team play.

There is Reed’s long history of unpopularity when he played college golf at Georgia and later at Augusta State. When those two teams met in the match-play final for the 2011 NCAA Championship, several Augusta State teammates told Georgia’s Harris English, who was to play Reed, that they hoped they won the national championship but they wanted English to beat Reed. Call it a split decision for Augusta State. Reed won, 2 and 1, as the Jaguars won their second consecutive NCAA title.

There also are tales from his ex-teammates about Reed having improved his lie in practice matches and other assorted misdeeds. It’s unofficial, but from a character standpoint, he’s got a long rap sheet. Reed’s mantra is that he’s not here to be liked; he’s here to win championships. So far, he’s succeeding on both fronts.

We should be talking about Reed’s play. He shared the 54-hole lead with Carlos Ortiz, then put up a solid 4-under 68 to win by five. Five players tied for second, including Norway’s Viktor Hovland, the only player who seriously challenged Reed on the final nine. Hovland bogeyed three of the final five holes, however, to allow Reed to play the 18th hole with a comfy four-shot lead (scores).

After the win, Reed’s embedded-ball drop still was the talk of the tournament. All of this could have been avoided if Reed had watched the replay of his ball bouncing in the rough and said, Oh, well, that ball might not have been embedded after all. I think it was embedded, but to be fair to the field and to erase any doubt, I’ll assess myself a penalty for illegally picking up my ball.

Maybe Reed wouldn’t have won with the penalty, but he would have won what he wound up losing instead: his integrity. Reed would have earned kudos from the golf world instead of scorn if he’d owned the ruling. CBS’ Nantz probably would have launched into a soliloquy about The Honor of The Game, with Reed as the latest exhibit.

Reed is a complicated man. He once played in the Sunnehanna Amateur in Johnstown, Pa., and was paired with my son, Mike Van Sickle. Their moms were on hand as spectators and, as many moms tend to do, they walked ahead to serve as forecaddies to help find any errant shots.

It was on a par-3 hole that Reed blocked one way right into the weeds. By the time he arrived in the area, his mother still was looking for the ball. Reed promptly reamed out his mother with an unending tirade of expletives. “You f---ing c---! You had one f---ing job!” And on and on and on. My son was beyond shocked.

Years later, I heard about the incident in which Reed had his parents kicked out of a tournament at which they were spectators. And when he won the 2018 Masters, Reed made it clear that his parents, who live in suburban Augusta, weren’t welcome on the grounds. Some writers discussed his awkward estrangement from his parents. Apparently, I was among the minority who weren’t surprised by those developments.

Plenty of champion golfers haven’t been warm or fuzzy or Mr. Wonderful. Sam Snead often wasn’t exactly a charmer. Dave Hill comes to mind, too. And other gruff winners. That’s fine.

But Reed has set himself up as an international rules-fudger. He has no one else to blame. Once you get that tag, you never can lose it. Worse, a charge like that can taint a player’s legitimate successes.

Remember in 2012, when Reed set a record (at the time) by Monday qualifying six times to get into PGA Tour fields? That is a remarkable feat, because you’ve got to shoot low, low, low. To do it six times in one summer almost defies belief.

Monday qualifiers usually have few spectators, few rules officials and few other players or caddies paying attention because they’re too busy fighting for their professional lives. They probably wouldn’t notice if a player in the right rough way over on the other side of the fairway happened to nudge his ball into a better lie a couple of times, turning a potential bogey into a birdie and qualified.

I don’t know anyone who has done that. I don’t know anyone who would.

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