Golf’s full of pleasant little aphorisms about honesty and hard work that its most ardent supporters trot out like commandments — “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank,” "Golf is a game of inches. The most important are the six inches between your ears,” et cetera. They’re pithy, catchy little metaphors, perfect for break-room motivational posters and corporate-presentation PowerPoints. And they’re no good whatsoever when someone starts — metaphorically — swinging chairs and turning over tables.
Down the line, we may look back on last week’s Presidents Cup as the year the Internationals started fighting back. In the shorter term, though, this will mark the point that Patrick Reed pointed out the fault lines in the PGA Tour.
Reed arrived in Australia under a cloud of suspicion stemming from his actions two weeks ago in the Bahamas, where it sure seemed like he dusted away some waste-area sand and, in doing so, illegally improved the conditions of his stroke:
A closer look at Patrick Reed’s two-stroke penalty during Round 3 of the Hero World Challenge. pic.twitter.com/z2aqkajnYq— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) December 7, 2019
Golf Twitter howled, but Reed pled innocence, claiming a “bad camera angle.” The PGA Tour took him at his word, even going so far as to call him a “gentleman” during the penalty discussions. Verdict: two strokes, nothing more.
You could make a case that Reed should have been tossed from the tournament right then and there, just as Phil Mickelson should have been when hitting a rolling putt at the U.S. Open last year … but the Tour took care of its own. You can call golf’s rules nitpicky and overly punitive — and I have — but as long as they’re in place, they’re enforceable.
The Australian crowds weren’t quite so accommodating, raining down insults and jeers to the point that Reed and his caddie cracked. Reed mocked shoveling sand after making a putt, and soon afterward, his caddie got into an “altercation” with an overly enthusiastic member of the gallery. Reed’s singles victory salvaged what was otherwise a terrible week from total disaster.
Golf, as a sport, is constitutionally incapable of handling someone like Reed, someone who gets in your face and dares you to challenge him. Golf’s spirit of arm’s-length enforcement keeps the messy business of punishment out of sight; you’re not going to see a PGA Tour official give a player the heave-ho right there on the fairway like a baseball umpire tossing out a mouthy manager. Disputes are settled in tents and behind closed doors, because that’s how the powers-that-be prefer it.
This isn’t a sport with a long history of outspoken characters; a recent list of golf’s greatest temper tantrums included three people who aren’t even golfers, one of whom isn’t even real. Reed, by contrast, has pushed the sport’s limits over and over again, grousing about unfair treatment both on and off the course, threatening to blow up team dynamics, and ripping a (European) camera crew … and that’s just in the last couple years.
We’ve long known there’s a caste system at work in the Tour’s enforcement of golf’s rules both on and off the course. Tiger Woods and Mickelson have both evaded punishment for off-course offenses or allegations worse than those which incited suspensions for John Daly and others. But those were wink-and-a-nod exceptions. Reed’s the first player in Tour history to really challenge the Tour’s devotion to decorum while still possessing marquee, major-winning talent.
I’m not suggesting Reed is apt to use the ol’ foot-wedge when he gets pinned up against a pine. If nothing else, he’s got to know he’ll have a camera following him around at all times now. Reed stays inside the ropes, even if he’s pretty much guaranteed he’ll never be a captain’s pick for an international team again. But he’s shown the way for someone who won’t: deny, bluster, mock and move on.
Reed’s not the real problem. But he’s showing where the real problems exist.
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