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The real meaning of the Patrick Reed heckling incident 

January 6, 2020


The U.S. Open at Winged Foot, in suburban New York City, where the crowds will be loud and candid, is six months away. That means that golf has a half-year to right two ships.

Patrick Reed needs to remake himself, and he’s going to need help to do it. He’s going to need your love. And it’s not going to be easy, because some of his behavior has been unsavory. That’s the first thing. The second is that every last golf spectator — every woman, man and non-binary person among us — must double-down on an old-timey, tried-and-true principle: golf is supposed to be an oasis of civility. As society becomes less civil, Golden Rule spectating behavior becomes only more important.

This was the heckle heard ‘round the world: A full-throated spectator yelled “Cheater!” at Reed as his eight-foot birdie putt rolled toward the cup on the third playoff hole at the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Sunday, held in Maui. Maui! Do you know how mellow the spectators normally are there?

The one-word heckle, using the ugliest word in the language of golf, relates to a blatant rules violation committed by Reed at Tiger’s tournament last month in the Bahamas. His ball was in a waste area, where you can ground your club. But there was an inconvenient clump of sand behind his ball and he took two practice swings to flatten that little sand hill, thereby improving his lie. The most experienced people in golf will tell you they’ve never seen anything like it on the PGA Tour.

Reed probably should have been thrown out of the tournament, for such a willful act of … it’s hard to use the word, it carries such weight.

The situation became much worse when Reed claimed, preposterously, that a camera angle made his excavation project look worse than it was.

Then the matter took on even deeper meaning. Not because Reed got heckled when he went to Australia the following week, to play in the Presidents Cup, handpicked for the team by Tiger Woods. It got worse because there was no honest accounting of what he did and why it was an affront to golf. Not by Reed, not by Woods, not by Reed’s teammates, not by any PGA Tour official.

Granted, the timing could not have been more awkward. They were there as a team. But the silence implied tacit approval, or at least the idea that Reed’s act was no big deal. And that’s even more worrisome. Reed didn’t even seem embarrassed to be caught. How could his touring brethren not be just downright pissed that he wasn’t playing by the rules? In a sense, he was stealing from them.

Nothing excuses what that spectator did, but if Reed would have owned his failings, or if his fellow professionals would have called him out on his flagrancy, there likely would not have been that one-word outburst.

If golf is on the road to anything goes, on the part of players or spectators, the professional game will be on life support before Tiger gets his 18th major.

There’s a kneejerk to any rules discussion that suggests golf is living in a dream-world from yesteryear. Not true! You want to play golf while listening to music and smoking a joint while wearing your shorts at half-mast? Knock yourself out.

But here are four things you actually have to do, as a player or spectator, if the game is to remain an oasis of civility:

1. Play by the rules (if you’re in any sort of serious competition);
2. Leave the course in better condition than you found it;
3. Be considerate of others;
4. Own your mistakes.

Reed definitely failed 1, 3 and 4. (As for 2, we don’t know about it.) The spectator failed at least 1 and 3. Yes, there are rules for spectators.

Of course, that’s the real spine of this whole issue: rules. Are we going to have rules or is everything just going to become, Whatever, dude?

The starting point for this debacle is the decay of good manners. Good manners — the basic rules of etiquette — are at the core of a civil society. They’re an extension of the Golden Rule. Golf falls apart without them. Somebody persuasive needs to turn Reed around on that, and make sure every player in every Tour event gets the message, too. As for the basic rules of spectating, Bob Jones wrote this in 1967, and it still rings true:

“In golf, customs of etiquette and decorum are just as important as rules governing play. It is appropriate for spectators to applaud successful strokes in proportion to difficulty but excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of the possible effect upon other competitors. Most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes of a player. Such occurrences have been rare at the Tournament but we must eliminate them entirely if our patrons are to continue to merit their reputation as the most knowledgeable and considerate in the world.”

Another great philosopher, Austin Powers, boiled it down to three syllables: “Oh, be-have.”

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@golf.com.