Golf has marketed the virtue of its players for so long that you’d be forgiven for assuming PGA Tour cards come with certificates of moral rectitude.
Until we recently began living under par, “These Guys Are Good” was recited with an almost evangelical fervor. The slogan wasn’t intended to refer only to the quality of play evident on Tour, but also to the not so readily apparent qualities of its members: sportsmanship, humanitarianism, charity.
That branding has two potential snares: Even a trivial divergence from the righteous narrative is magnified, and it denies golf fans the manufactured hatred that thrives in other sports. After all, it’s tough to hate a guy when you only hear about his decency and kindness to puppies.
Yet the PGA Tour prizes banality, embracing guys whose idea of coloring outside the lines is confined to quirky swings or not wearing chinos. The result is a weekly soap opera serving plenty of vanilla but no villains. (Even the loutish John Daly was more hapless than hated.)
There’ve been many Tour stars with prickly personalities – Hogan, Ballesteros, Watson, Faldo, just for starters – but never a true anti-hero, never a player willing to endure unpopularity and able to recycle it as fuel.
Patrick Reed’s extensive history of conflagrations belies his 28 years. There were allegations of cheating and theft in college, which he strenuously denied; the painfully public schism with his family, which he declines to address; the time he missed a putt and berated himself on camera with an anti-gay slur.
Through it all, his “Captain America” persona – born of fine play in the Ryder and Presidents Cups and sustained with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of Twitter memes – has ensured that Reed was seen not as a villain but as a flawed hero.
Reed’s reputation as a Purple Heart pro took a hit in the aftermath of his lousy Ryder Cup performance, during which he mutinied on his commanding officer, Captain James Michael Furyk, and shoved two fellow privates (Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods) into the path of shrapnel intended for him.
The blame shifting was entirely on brand. Earlier this year the Masters champion made two imprudent public comments about his longtime Team USA wingman Spieth, suggesting that his back ached from carrying the Golden Child and that Spieth gets unduly favorable rulings from officials.
He became the perfect Captain America for the Trump era, bellyaching about shouldering imaginary burdens and thwarting the deep state running the PGA Tour’s rules department.
His ill-judged Ryder Cup defense was joined by his wife and mother-in-law, who displayed admirable enthusiasm for the keyboard combat of social media. At least Amy and Mary Mickelson stayed above the fray when Phil publicly blamed his captain four years ago.
Mickelson’s popularity ensured that his humiliation of Tom Watson was cast as a necessary act for the good of the team. Reed will enjoy no such grace in his efforts to impugn others for his performance in Paris. The part-time saint always polls better than a full-time sinner.
I asked another famously feisty competitor what he makes of Reed. “I’ve always viewed him as sincere. I like the way he handles himself on the course,” Paul Azinger said. Then he added wryly, “I will say it’s not uncommon for players not to like each other on Ryder Cup teams. But they almost always like each other more after.”
When judged next to Spieth, it’s easy to condemn Reed as an irredeemable jerk, a caricature of a wrestling rogue beating up on the (thinning) flaxen-haired embodiment of all-American values. There seems little about him worthy of admiration, except his talent.
The same was said of John McEnroe four decades ago.
The intense resentment that fueled McEnroe, and which seems to drive Reed, can easily lead to burn out. It is the rare athlete who is sustained by it. It exhausted McEnroe in the end, but kept Ballesteros on leaderboards for more than 20 years.
Tennis benefitted immeasurably from McEnroe’s combustible, must-see mixture of brilliance and petulance. So too will golf from Reed’s.
Sports fans love to hate, and in golf they finally have their man. They know the day will come when Reed is paired with the teammates he publicly alienated. And we all know he’ll shush any suggestion that the pairing could be as discomfiting for him as for them.
For all his many failings, we can at least appreciate what Reed brings to a Tour that has too often relied on a menu devoid of spice.
“His new nickname is ‘Table for One’,” a Tour veteran texted me last week. It might still be a more entertaining table than one featuring some of his peers.
Golfweek, October 7, 2018.