What do you think about when you think about Patrick Reed? Is it his caped theatrics at biennial American team events? Maybe his “I’m a top-five player in the world statement” at Doral several years ago? Perhaps it’s an up-and-down college career marked by national championships but also an array of affidavits.
What you likely don’t think of when you think about Patrick Reed is a game good enough to win at Augusta National, Bethpage Black, Torrey Pines, Liberty National and two WGC events. You probably don’t think about how, lacking the traditional modern skillset (in fact, having a deficiency when it comes to the traditional modern skillset), Reed has nonetheless carved out a borderline hall-of-fame-worthy career by the age of 30.
His nine PGA Tour wins are among the most of any active player, and he narrowly trails much bigger names like Adam Scott (14 PGA Tour wins), Justin Thomas (13) and Jordan Spieth (11). In fact, his winning percentage of 3.9% through his first 230 PGA Tour events is almost identical to Adam Scott’s 4.2%. They both have a green jacket, too, as well as similar top-10 rates at major championships. It’s strange to think about considering how different their games (and personas) are — Scott’s majestic swing and laid-back aura are both among the best of all time — but their career trajectories are very, very similar.
Though Reed has still never resided in the top five in the Official World Golf Rankings, he won the Farmers Insurance Open on Sunday the way he typically wins golf tournaments: an otherworldly short game and layers of controversy.
His embedded-lie drop on the 10th hole on Round 3 on Saturday will be remembered far longer than his five-stroke win over a host of runners-up. And while we can argue about whether this should be the case, there is little room for debate about whether it will be the case. Reed has lost the benefit of the doubt over the course of his career after Shane Ryan reported on his college antics, a sketchy bunker incident in the Bahamas a few years ago and former CBS broadcaster Peter Kostis said he’s seen Reed improve lies in the rough.
That he’s dragged Ryder Cup teammates over the years surely does not help the reputation.
Still, he wins. He destroys. And he does so with nothing resembling the games of more talented players like Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm. So how does it happen? Reed might have the best short game of any player on the planet. That was on display at Torrey Pines when he got up and down over 70% of the time and gained 80% of his strokes on or around the greens.
“His short game is a joke,” Brooks Koepka said recently. “I don’t think people realize how good of a wedge player he is around the greens. I’ll never forget, we’re playing Charlotte a few years ago. It’s me, Tiger and him, and he had this shot where I thought there was no chance he could get it within 15 feet And he hits it to kick-in, literally. And I’m like ‘oh my god.’ And Tiger even said to me ‘I don’t understand?’ He’s that good.”
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Since the start of 2018, Reed is No. 5 on the PGA Tour in combined strokes gained around and on the green, according to Data Golf. Only Webb Simpson, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Brandt Snedeker and Jason Day have been better with their wedges and putter. Even more shockingly, of all the players in the top 20 in overall strokes gained, Reed ranks second to last in ball-striking (off the tee and with his irons). Only Day has been worse. Reed gains a half stroke per round with his ball-striking, which is a third of what Justin Thomas gains and close to a quarter of what Rory gains.
That he’s contending in this era of the elite ball-striker (or any era, really) is flabbergasting. That he has four wins since the start of 2018 (with one of them being the Masters) defies belief. And yet, we miss all of this because there’s all of that.
“It’s tough to see, it’s sad, kind of pisses us off, but it’s the way it is,” said fellow competitor Lanto Griffin about Reed’s questionable relief on Saturday in Round 3. “Hopefully something changes and come to a conclusion.”
“Obviously the talk amongst the boys isn’t great, I guess, but he’s protected by the Tour and that’s all that matters, I guess,” added Xander Schauffele, who was among those who finished second behind Reed.
The talk amongst the boys is a phrase Schauffele used multiple times, and it’s not difficult to read between the lines. Not everyone goes on record like Schauffele and Griffin, but it’s quite rare to come across unadulterated praise for Reed in this profession. What Schauffele and Griffin voiced is pretty standard, maybe even tame.
This is not on account of jealousy, either. Rory has won twice as much as Reed has, and there’s nobody more praised behind the scenes. Same with Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and many other all-time greats. Players want to talk about talent they’ve never seen before — look at Koepka’s quote above — Reed just makes it difficult because he brings so much baggage to the table. Leading with Reed’s elite short game in any conversation would be like leading with the sizable donations the Madoff family has made to charity over the years.
As my friend, Brendan Porath, has pointed out repeatedly, this is incredibly unfortunate but it’s also of Reed’s own doing. He’s not overcoming adversity when he wins golf tournaments as was the theme following his mess from the Bahamas at the end of 2019. No, he’s simply kicking up clouds of controversy by trying to — and this is a very generous interpretation of the arc of his career — straddle the lines of what’s legal and strongarm those with more theoretical power into enabling him to do so. There’s a difference between being polarizing and controversial, too. Bryson DeChambeau is polarizing. Reed is controversial. You could fill the chasm between the two definitions with every rules official on the planet.
There’s a lot to think about when you think about Patrick Reed, but the problem with all of this is the same as it has always been with Reed. The talent is tremendous. That he’s doing it in this era even more so. But Reed, like he did this week, cannot stop getting in his own way. All the ancillary stuff he does is an eclipse of his outrageous game. It’s fascinating to look at for a moment, but it hides the star power that resides behind it. Unfortunately, as the last decade has proven, the eclipse is not temporary. It will last for the rest of his career.