Reed and McIlroy Entangled in Controversy at Farmers Insurance Open

-- Feb 7, 2021 at 2:54 pm ET

Reed and McIlroy both take embedded ball relief on Saturday at the Farmers Insurance Open

On Saturday at the 2021 Farmers Insurance Open, an incident involving Patrick Reed over what would normally be a routine ruling, triggered renewed discussion attacking Reed’s integrity on the course.

Coming off a front-nine 31, on the 10th hole, Reed found himself in a fairway bunker as he approached the green. From there, he hooked his 2nd into thick rough where neither Reed nor his playing partners could see the ball land. The volunteer who spotted the ball, when asked, told Reed that “she didn’t see it bounce.” Suspecting that his ball was embedded, Reed informed his playing partners who were over in the fairway that he was going to check.

Under Rule 16.3 of the USGA Rules of Golf, a rule recently added in the 2019 rules revision, a player is entitled to a one club-length drop if his ball or part of his ball is below the surface of the ground as long as the ball is not in the general area. The general area constitutes the teeing area belonging to the given hole, penalty areas, bunkers, and putting surfaces. Since Reed’s ball was in the rough, he qualified for this relief assuming that his ball was embedded.

Due to the thick rough surrounding the ball, it was necessary for Reed to lift his ball to determine whether it had broken the plane. Rule 16.4 allows for this, but the ball’s position must be marked first which Reed did with a tee. Reed then took a cautionary step in calling over a rules official which is most likely what brought attention to the escapade. Many golf fans, unaccustomed to PGA Tour players picking their balls up out of the rough, were alarmed when it appeared that Reed prematurely lifted his ball, even though he operated under the rules.

At this point, there was no genuine reason to believe that Reed did anything wrong and he should be given the benefit of the doubt. In fact, later on Saturday, Reed pointed out that Rory McIlroy “DID THE SAME THING TODAY ON HOLE 18!” McIlroy too asked the nearby volunteers if they had seen his ball bounce which they did not. Rory then lifted this ball and confirmed with his playing partner Rory Sabbatini, who did not truly inspect the ball, that he was entitled to relief. In this case, a rules official was not involved nor do the rules require one.

However, replays later showed that both balls did indeed bounce. The only difference being that while McIlroy’s ball could have conceivably, albeit unlikely, returned to its original pitch mark, Reed’s ball clearly did not.

Given McIlroy’s similar episode which failed to seek “official” validation, Reed was perhaps a victim of a bad reputation. McIlroy is known for his honesty, integrity, and congeniality. When asked about the ruling post-round on Sunday, McIlroy recounted a similar ruling he took at the 2020 PGA Championship:

“I got relief because someone stepped on my ball, but I didn’t feel right because the lie that I had was way worse than the lie that I would have been given. So, I gave myself a worse lie to just try and be fair to the field and the tournament in general.”

On the other hand, Reed has had a sticky past. Going back to his college days at the University of Georgia, Reed was dismissed from the team amidst cheating allegations from his teammates which were confirmed by then assistant golf coach Jason Payne. Although Reed denied these accusations, his character had already been brought into question. At the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational, a rules official refused Reed a free drop from some shrubbery, despite the golfer’s claims that his stance was impeded by electrical wires. In response, Reed took a jab at the PGA Tour and Jordan Spieth, saying “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth.”

In December of 2019 at the Hero World Challenge, Reed displaced the sand directly behind his ball twice, later claiming that he was unaware of having done so until watching the video replay. Even at last year’s US Open, footage of Reed chipping from just off the green saw him improve his lie by pressing his club down behind his ball in a manner that certainly appeared to exceed a player’s right to “Ground the Club Lightly” as is specified under USGA rule 8.1b. Former, long-time, CBS golf broadcaster Peter Kostis has revealed that he witnessed Reed do this on multiple occasions. Whether Reed has actually been aware of improving his lies or is merely practicing a habitual pre-shot routine is unknown.

“I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth.” - Patrick Reed

This then asks the question of whether it is right to jump to conclusions that Reed cheated at the Farmers Insurance Open while many are willing to trust McIlroy’s word just based on their respective histories. The fact remains, though, that Reed’s ball did not land in its pitch mark. Furthermore, the odds that the ball created a pitch mark after bouncing are very remote; in fact, Reed acknowledged that that would be “literally impossible.” Finally, it would be just as unlikely for the ball to land in a previously-made pitch mark, especially considering that the ball was in the rough outside the normal playing area. Therefore, what or who caused the indent that the rules official observed when checking Reed’s ball?

On Monday, this story took another twist as a volunteer notified the PGA Tour that he stepped on McIlroy’s ball while searching for it in the rough, ultimately exonerating the Northern-Irishman and refocusing the conversation on Patrick Reed. Is it possible that the volunteer near Reed’s ball did the same thing? Maybe. It is not easy given the circumstances, but, like McIlroy did, we will try to give Patrick the benefit of the doubt.