The PGA Tour schedule begins in October. But the season doesn’t really begin until we’ve got our annual serving of Patrick Reed drama. We’ve seen this before — Reed bumps up against the rules of golf, takes some grief, shrugs it off, life goes on — but what happened this past weekend at the Farmers Insurance Open feels like it’s going to stick to Reed’s reputation for a long, long time.
Reed, the phenomenally talented, ever-infuriating Masters champion, ignited the world of golf — normally sedate and chill in January — over the weekend. He combined a rules controversy on Saturday with an in-your-face victory on Sunday. And all along the way, he strode Torrey Pines with a blend of arrogance and grievance, a determination to shove his haters’ doubts in their faces because, after all, he wasn’t doing anything wrong.
Here are the facts: on Saturday, Reed, leading the Farmers’ Insurance Open, pulled his approach shot on the 10th into heavy grass around the green. He asked his playing partners and a lone nearby volunteer if the ball had bounced before coming to rest. All said no, so Reed walked over, declared his ball embedded, and pulled it out of the grass for a drop … before the nearby rules official arrived.
By the book, this wasn’t an illegal move. Reed determined, to the best of his ability, that the ball had likely jammed itself into the thick, rain-soaked turf, and that entitled him to relief. That’s no small benefit when you’re in a stroke-for-stroke fight for the lead; playing the ball as it lay would almost certainly have added a stroke or two to Reed’s card.
The full exchange as Patrick Reed takes embedded ball relief on No. 10. pic.twitter.com/gSPH6PrAoW
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 30, 2021
But then matters took a turn for the strange. Video replay indicated that the ball had indeed bounced before coming to rest, and landing on anything short of, say, a large bowl of soup, there’s no way that a ball that’s already bounced is going to embed itself deep enough to warrant relief.
Thing is, by grabbing the ball before anyone else had a chance to inspect it, Reed effectively slammed the door on any second-guessing or doubting of the ball’s true position. He did all that he was required to — he ascertained to the best of his ability that the ball had apparently augured into the turf — and for him, that was enough to snag the ball.
“When we’re out there, we can’t see everything,” Reed said to CBS after Saturday’s round. “When that happens, you have to go by what the volunteers say, what the rules officials say. When all comes push and shove, we feel like we did the right thing and the rules official said we did it absolutely perfectly. With that being said, we moved on and just continued playing.”
But there’s the letter of the law, and there’s the spirit. What Reed did was lean so hard into the letter of the law that he ran right over its spirit. By plucking the ball before the rules official had a chance to even inspect the lie, Reed did the equivalent of pushing all his chips to the center of the table against an overmatched opponent. The rules official couldn’t say for sure that the ball wasn’t embedded. And in a battle between a Tour player and an official, the official better bring a CVS-length receipt in order to overrule the word of a player.
The fact that even an unintentional rules miscue can backfire on a player has led most to err on the side of extreme caution. Asked after Sunday’s round what they thought of Reed’s decision-making, at least two players took issue with how Saturday played out.
“If my ball's embedded, I usually will wait and call someone and kind of wait until everyone's on the same page, wait to look at video,” said Xander Schauffele, one of five second-place finishers five strokes behind Reed. “So I try to avoid situations like that just for that reason.”
“I think 99 percent of the golfers out here, if it’s in question one way or the other, they’re going to go the other way, not taking a drop,” said Lanto Griffin, who finished tied for seventh, six strokes off the lead.
Adding to the chaos: Rory McIlroy did the exact same thing as Reed on the 18th on Saturday, picking up a ball from the rough before calling over an official.
“It was reasonable for both players to conclude — based on the fact that they did not see the ball land, but given the lie of the ball in soft course conditions — that they proceed as the rule allows for a potential embedded ball,” the PGA Tour said in a statement. “They marked, lifted and assessed the situation to determine if the ball was embedded.
“Patrick went one step further and called in a rules official to be sure his assessment would not be questioned (although this step is not required). Both players took proper relief under the Rule 16/3. The committee is comfortable with how both players proceeded given the fact that they used the evidence they had at the time.”
That, in Reed’s mind, was enough to close the book on the matter. He even took to Twitter later Saturday night to hold up McIlroy’s moment as justification for his own.
— Patrick Reed (@PReedGolf) January 31, 2021
“RORY MCILROY @McIlroyRory DID THE SAME THING TODAY ON HOLE 18! AND DIDN’T EVEN CALL A RULES OFFICIAL OVER TO DEEM THE BALL EMBEDDED. END OF STORY,” Reed’s account tweeted. (In a fun little twist, another account that has a history of defending Reed tweeted the exact same line, word for word. Burner account or avid defender? As with the possibly-embedded ball, there’s crucial information we don’t know.)
So why the unequal treatment of Reed and his erstwhile Ryder Cup rival McIlroy? Why did McIlroy skate while Golf Twitter spent 24 hours treating Reed the way hackers on a public driving range treat the ball-collecting golf cart?
Simple: Reed has been here before. Allegations of cheating dogged Reed all the way through his days in college at both the University of Georgia and Augusta State. More recently, Reed bunkered his way into a rules controversy at the 2019 Hero World Challenge, an incident that likely would have followed him through the rest of the 2020 season had there been fans in galleries.
Add to that the fact that Reed took shots at Jordan Spieth after the disastrous 2018 Ryder Cup and complained that he doesn’t get the same preferential treatment, and, well … the sympathy tank for Reed is bone-dry … even when he does everything by the book.
When it comes to criticizing fellow players, golf, like most other sports, has a never-take-sides-against-the-family mentality. So the fact that multiple players went on the record Sunday against Reed, and by association the PGA Tour’s role in protecting him, is a sign of significant movement in the clubhouse. Some, like Michael Gellerman, who missed the cut this week, subtweeted Reed — “I can’t stand cheating in our sport” — without using his name. Others went on the record when asked directly about Reed.
“Obviously the talk amongst the boys isn’t great, I guess,” Schauffele said, “but he’s protected by the Tour and that’s all that matters, I guess.”
“It’s tough to see, it’s sad, kind of pisses us off, but it’s the way it is,” Griffin said. “Hopefully something changes and come[s] to a conclusion.”
Reed’s an abrasive, arrogant player, perpetually convinced of his own righteousness. Eight of the 12 questions Reed took after winning the tournament were, directly or indirectly, about the Saturday incident, and he swatted away them all like flies at a picnic. The look on his face when he called over a rules official late in Sunday’s round could only be described as “Happy now, nerds?” Golf prizes decorum over victory; Reed prizes victory, and decorum can stand outside the ropes.
Reed’s style isn’t in itself a crime, and in fact doesn’t make him any different from most other major champions. Say whatever you want about the guy, he plays well despite outside and self-inflicted pressure. Sunday evening’s trophy is proof of that.
But he’s danced right along the line of rules violations far too often, and after this weekend, it’s going to be a long time before many fans or fellow players take him at his word again.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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