Imagine Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s only comment on the Astros cheating scandal engulfing his sport was “I believe them” in response to the players’ denial that they promoted, orchestrated, and were fully in on the scheme. Then imagine one of Manfred’s deputies responsible for maintaining a level playing field in the league went out of his way to make sure you knew the Astros were “complete gentlemen” during the investigation of their cheating.
These are the lines we’ve heard on Patrick Reed’s December adventure in the sand from dignitaries at the PGA Tour, the other American professional sport with a cheating scandal thought to be disposed of months ago. At the Tour’s first event of the calendar year, commissioner Jay Monahan addressed the incident publicly with a defense of Reed. “I’ve had an opportunity to talk to Patrick at length,” he said. “I believe Patrick when he says that [he] did not intentionally improve [his] lie.” Monahan leaned on Slugger White’s (now of “complete gentleman” fame) adjudication and penalty (it’s never “cheating” in the parallel PGA Tour universe) at the tournament and said, “To me, that was the end of the matter.”
It was only the end of the matter for Reed’s scorecard, as we saw this week with the incident bubbling back up thanks to comments from one of the Tour’s marquee players and one of its familiar broadcasting “partners.” First came Brooks Koepka, winner of four of the last 11 major championships and a leader in pro game, directly stating “Yeah” when asked by Sway Calloway if Reed was cheating in the “sand pit” back in December. Then the increasingly acerbic Koepka added, “I don’t know what he was doing, building sand castles in the sand but, you know where your club is. I mean, I took three months off and I can promise you I know if I touched sand.”
Koepka is adding to the chorus of those who play and played the game at the highest level vehemently asserting that there is no credibility to Reed’s “unintentional” defense. There may be in the commissioner’s office, but not among the players in his league. “It’s one of those things where you know, if you look at the video,” Koepka added, “obviously he grazes the sand twice and then he still chops down on it.”
Following Koepka was Peter Kostis, respected swing coach and longtime CBS walking reporter who was let go from the network at the end of last year. Kostis was a man on fire on the No Laying Up podcast, calling out his former employer and the Tour for a variety of issues he believes illustrate their indifference to the end product on television. But on Reed, he was more pointed and specific, testifying that he’d seen this similar maneuver multiple times in the course of his duties with CBS.
“I’ve seen Patrick Reed improve his lie up close and personal four times now ... You can go on YouTube. It’s the only time I’ve ever shut McCord up, he didn’t know what to say when I said, ‘The lie that I saw originally wouldn’t have allowed for this shot’ ... Because he put four, five clubs behind the ball, kind of faking whether he’s going to hit this shot or that shot — and by the time he hit a freaking 3-wood out of there. Which, when I saw it, it was a sand wedge layup originally, right?”
Kostis went on at length about Reed’s propensity for improving his lie and cited the places he’d seen it happen.
“I saw him, I was in the tower at 16 at San Diego on the par-3 during a Golf Channel telecast and he hit over the green, and he did the same thing. Put three or four clubs behind and it was really a treacherous shot. Nobody had gotten it close all day long from over there. And by the time he was done, I could read ‘Callaway’ on the golf ball from the tower. There was another incident at Hartford and another incident at San Diego. I was there, and I saw them all.”
As we’ve seen with the avalanche of MLB player comments from spring training sites across the league and with the near-unanimous mockery of Manfred in recent weeks, the absence of what’s perceived as sufficient punishment has only prolonged the matter. Like the Astros scandal, the outcry over the limited punishment for Reed feels like the easy vessel to holler about the Tour for a variety of underlying issues. He was already a polarizing figure. This is red-handed video evidence. The punishment was minimal and larded up with laughable quotations about class and gentlemanliness. Let’s yell about all the ways the Tour failed here and is failing elsewhere.
We’re closing in on three months since the original incident and the commentary continues to trickle out well beyond just the immediate embarrassment at the Presidents Cup that followed the week after Reed’s excavation. There, International team member Cam Smith used the word cheating, for which he was admonished by the PGA Tour. If you are more offended by Smith calling it cheating than your are the actual cheating, then we’re starting in a very bad place. Team USA members also appeared to make light of their teammate’s misstep and adamantly stated it was behind them. This happened before Reed made sure it was not behind them, mocking hecklers by mimicking a shovel move during a match he lost and before his caddie (also his brother-in-law) hauled off and punched another heckler. Reed was heckled again in his first start back on U.S. soil, a typically subdued vacation of an event on Maui.
Reed scooping away some sand in a low-stakes December tournament is not an existential threat to the PGA Tour, so you can almost understand the commissioner’s line that it was the “end of the matter.” While it’s odd that the Tour tripped over themselves to staunchly defend the honor of Reed, someone with a history of sketchiness and not exactly a marketing whale for the Tour, there were issues of far greater concern to get to for the commissioner, like fending off a cruise ship of Saudi cash trying to poach his league’s best players. You may think Reed’s cheating has been a stain on the game and illuminated a host of issues with PGA Tour management. But you should be under no assumption that Monahan views “protecting the game” as a job priority. Protecting his specific league’s business interests and its members, who he ultimately answers to, are the priorities. Get your TV rights cash and leave the other holistic greater good stuff to the USGA, Augusta, and others. It’s similar to what Michael Baumann at The Ringer wrote of Manfred this week, “One thing that’s become crystal clear as this scandal has unfolded: Manfred’s job is not to look out for the sport.”
That Presidents Cup setting, while adversarial, may have been the softest of landings Reed could have hoped for among his peers, who were teammates that felt compelled to either defend or turn a blind eye. Since then, his teammate that week, Bryson DeChambeau came out and said “Yes, he cheated” on a Fortnite Twitch stream, a forum not exactly subject to the Tour’s PR guardrails. And then Koepka added his opinion on the matter this week, also saying he’s seen this happen with other players at other times on Tour.
This seems like a more significant issue for the Tour than a single incident in the Bahamas from a guy used to playing the villain. Kostis is saying he’s seen it multiple times from Reed (some of which we have video evidence for) and Koepka is saying he’s seen it out on Tour from others but kept his mouth shut.
This is a league running into the warm embrace of legalized gambling and perhaps here’s where the punishment of Reed, or lack thereof, could become more of problem than just negative PR the Tour can weather. They’re licensing all their Shotlink data for gambling purposes and are set to collect buckets of more cash. Gambling is going to become part of its culture and DNA. Now you’re answering to more than just your members when it comes to a level playing field and disclosure of information. After this nagging Reed drama that won’t go away, what happens the next time someone is caught fluffing their lie? What if it’s not on camera but just alleged from a playing partner? What happens if it’s Reed again or someone with a cleaner reputation? Has the reaction to this from players like Koepka changed the way this will be handled in the future? Does the word “cheating” not exist at the PGA Tour? Because it does in the gambling world.
Two shots did not seem enough in December and it doesn’t seem enough in the future. Right now, as both Kostis and Koepka illustrated this week, it feels like those safeguards are not fully in place in a clear way.
The rules of golf are full of mind-numbing and counter-intuitive inanities but everything branches out from the simple core starting point of “play it as it lies.” It’s a basic tenet like a hitter not knowing the exact pitch that’s coming. So if you’re betting on the PGA Tour you’d want to know that it’s a level playing field and those who deliberately and repeatedly alter their lies might be punished for it. Or, for instance, that players’ drivers are being consistently and regularly tested for trampoline effects over legal limits (there is still no real oversight for this). The Reed saga, and this is part of the reason why it’s still a topic months later, has left the Tour with the air of a place where cheating the rules is not a priority or, at best, is not clearly defined.