A lingering controversyDecember 10, 2019

Presidents Cup 2019: Patrick Reed is the story the Americans can't kill

Patrick Reed
WILLIAM WEST

MELBOURNE—Patrick Reed walked in smiling to his Tuesday press conference at Royal Melbourne, and the smile turned into a laugh—shared with Justin Thomas—when he saw the buzzing scrum of reporters gathered in front of his podium spot. Reed can be inscrutable when he wants to be, and this was a case where it was hard to know whether he truly found the situation amusing, or whether he thought adopting that pose was the best way to handle a moment he must have been dreading. In any case, the smile couldn't last long as the barrage of questions came in, some of them couched in politesse, some of them blunt, but all of them relating to the Bahamas controversy:

"Do you feel there will be a bit of backlash?"

"Does it hurt you?"

"Have you addressed the situation with your teammates?"

"Are you getting support from your teammates?"

"Have you ever cared what anyone said about you?"

"Do you feel like you have something to prove this weekend?"

"You didn't cheat?"

"How does it make you feel when the word 'cheat' is bandied about?"

In this case, the questions are more interesting than the answers, because Reed followed his deflecting script with a kind of admirable rigor. When asked if he was expecting a "backlash" from the Australian fans, for instance, Reed gave the following answer:

"I hope the fans aren't cheering for the U.S. side. As an away team, you would expect the fans to be on the other side."

Which makes sense, except it's not the question that was being asked. What the journalist wanted to know was whether Reed expected specific backlash to his specific act in the Bahamas. He answered as if he was being asked a generic question about fan reaction to an opposing team, which is either missing the point or willfully evasive. There's safety in numbers, and Reed was quick to turn the singular personal into the plural general.

It's also, as these things go, a fairly intelligent tactic if your goal is to quash a story by starving it of oxygen. In fact, most of Reed's press conference was a tour de force of media management by way of blandness, because no matter what he was asked over the roughly 20 minutes he stood before the gaggle of press, he responded with something broad, and something true, but something ambiguous nonetheless. If journalists were expecting an illustrative quote from Reed's presser, they came away disappointed.

The same could be said for his teammates. When Justin Thomas was asked if the team dynamic had been affected, he gave an emphatic "no, no," and defended Reed.

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"That's something that's great about Patrick is he's obviously, you know, he's been a great team player and he's always wanted to win points for the team," he said. "So I think the only way it could become a distraction is what the headlines are and how much we read into it. ... It's in the past. And I understand it's going to be something that continues to get brought up, but none of us worry about it."

Patrick Cantlay, his probable playing partner, called it "overblown," and added that "penalties happen all the time." Xander Schauffele said that "everyone's going to give him the benefit of the doubt," and Webb Simpson concurred, saying, "it hasn't really been an issue at all." As for the playing captain, Tiger gave Reed credit, calling him a "tough kid" who "handled a tough upbringing well."

Tiger's allusion to Reed's family was as close as any quote came to what might be called personal, but as much as the Americans tried to put a lid on the whole subject, and as technically successful as they might have been, they don't have a monopoly over reality. Like it or not, there's an entire world waiting outside the media tents, and it's not governed by the same decorum.

In that world, Cameron Smith of the International Team alluded to knowingly breaking the rules and called Reed's explanation of a deceiving camera angle "a bit of bulls--t." In that world, Rickie Fowler's gut reaction after seeing the video was, "I don't even know what you have to review." In that world, the soft-spoken Marc Leishman said that "it didn't look too good on him," and that as far as fan heckling was concerned, Reed had "opened a door and brought it upon himself." In that world, which includes the unruly landscape of social media, people will view the incident, view the history, and make their own judgments—some of which won't be at all sympathetic.

And on Tuesday morning, during Reed's first practice round at Royal Melbourne, a fan watching from the first tee decided to give him a formal introduction:

"On the first tee, from the United States ... the excavator!"

Reed laughed. The other fans laughed. And maybe they'll all keep laughing, or maybe the laughs will transform into something a little less friendly on both sides. But the reactions the Americans want the most—silence, forgiveness, amnesia—are the ones they can't have. Once a distraction has been unleashed, it answers to nobody.