An expert in fan behavior explains why fans have it in for Patrick Reed
This may blow over. The jeers in Melbourne mere gamesmanship, the shout in Maui a lone wolf. It could wash away with a mea culpa or be replaced with another controversy in the never-ending news cycle.
There is also a chance Augusta National dyes Rae’s Creek pink.
In all likelihood, the past month for Patrick Reed—what it has produced in sounds and scenes and sentiments—is his new reality.
“In a sport like golf where the rules are sacrosanct, that’s a tough label to shake,” says Dr. Sam Sommers, author of This is Your Brain on Sports and a professor of psychology at Tufts University.
The “label” Sommers is referring to is the yell directed at Reed in sudden death at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, a label that threatens to menacingly hover over the 29-year-old this season, if not longer.
In a game comfortable with the status quo, Reed has long been a disruptor. But that was a station built on behavior that was coarse and brash yet not necessarily malicious, and while his past is cloaked in smoke, a smoking gun has been absent.
Then came the Hero World Challenge, where Reed very visibly broke a rule. He said a bad camera angle was to blame, but that answer was not satisfying to some who watched the replay, as well as other videos surfacing on social media suggesting similar movements from past tournaments. In the face of mounting criticism, Reed remained unrepentant, doubling-down on his defense by pantomiming the use of a shovel at the Presidents Cup. It was behavior that to many confirmed their thinking on Reed. His reputation had a new, permanent mark.
“We operate in the context of our previous actions and the narrative created regarding our tendencies,” Dr. Sommers says. “Once that reputation is in place, it colors everything that comes after.”
On the surface, what’s at hand seems elementary. In A Qualitative Inquiry on Schadenfreude by Sport Fans, authors Vassilis Dalakas, Joanna Phillips Melancon and Tarah Sreboth note the “feelings of pleasure and joy that one party experiences at the misfortunes [of others]” are inherent to watching competition. Reed, well before the Hero, was a player golf fans were prone to root against. This was purely new fodder.
Yet to chalk what was viewed and heard at the Presidents Cup and the Sentry TOC to this notion is not grasping the situation at hand.
Dr. Sommers is one of the leading authorities on the behavior of sports fans, and thus the perfect man to turn to in a situation such as this. For what’s important now is not what happened, if it could have been prevented, what parties and factors served as enablers ... but what comes next.
Our moral compass can be selective and subjective, Sommers asserts. There is no reason why the indiscretions that stick to some slide off others. However, when these transgressions do stick, they’re tough to unglue. “A substance abuser or someone convicted of assault, you would think those labels would be harder to shake,” Dr. Sommers said. “But that’s clearly not the case. There is something about violating the rules in certain sports that rankles a lot of people.”
It is an assertion that rings true now—Dr. Sommers mentions the New England Patriots’ litany of alleged rules violations, the Houston Astros stealing signs—and in the past, especially for golf. Vijay Singh is a more complex man than he’s credited for, yet his ban from the Asian Tour for doctoring a scorecard followed him to the United States. Gary Player was followed by whispers, which grew louder when Tom Watson called him out during the 1983 Skins Game.
Reed won’t have to face the infamous Waste Management Phoenix Open crowd—he’ll be growing the game that week at the Saudi International—but catcalls are not specific to TPC Scottsdale, and have been directed at players for far less. In the past year, Matt Kuchar heard taunts for stiffing a caddie, highlighted by publicized cracks at Riviera and the U.S. Open. Ian Poulter routinely deals with heckling, mostly because he’s a formidable Ryder Cup opponent, going so far as to throw a fan out in Memphis for “idiot” behavior.
The Bethpage crowd collapsed on itself during the PGA Championship on Sunday for no reason at all, cheering Brooks Koepka’s bad shots and yelling in Dustin Johnson’s backswing on the 71st hole.
Reed’s treatment in Melbourne and Maui? That likely was only the beginning.
That’s because, according to Dr. Sommers, Reed has tapped into a societal outrage that, for better or worse, has captured the zeitgeist. Some of it is extremely serious, such as the Me Too Movement or the impeachment hearings. But others—think of the college admissions scandal—can get a disproportionate amount of attention.
“They [Reed, the Houston Astros stealing signs, parents of the admissions scandal] all are fraught with morally problematic actions, but we can agree they are not the biggest crimes in our society today,” Dr. Sommers says. But the outrage, however misguided, is still there.
It will likely remain there during the Florida swing events, where spring breakers often join the galleries. And during the U.S. Open, against an irreverent New York crowd. And perhaps the Open Championship, with fans he’s previously riled up at Ryder Cups. Maybe any rank-and-file tournament event, frankly. Golf insults are tame compared to an average NFL game day experience. Yet they sound jarring against the game’s hushed backdrop, and ethos.
"[His past] certainly ups the ante and increases the probability of more fan behavior to happen," Dr. Sommers says.
In short, it is going to get worse. Probably much worse. Unfortunately for Patrick Reed, this is a lie that can't be improved.