A golf dilemma. For the benefit of those who do not have rank golf yarns cascading into their Whatsapp group every day.
Two players at the 18th hole are level in a matchplay event. They drive. The first ball hits the fairway and the second flies into the heavy rough.
The two spend about five minutes looking for the second ball in the weeds, and the first player thinks lost-ball penalty and walks back to the fairway to hit his approach shot. He hits his ball to 20 feet from the flag and just as it lands hears his playing partner “Found it!” The partner then hits his second shot and the ball lands to within gimme distance from the pin.
Here’s the dilemma – do you tell him you have his ball in your pocket.
So Patrick Reed is standing with his caddie waving at a PGA Tour official from a path in Torrey Pines. He wants to get a ruling for his ball, which he says is plugged. It has been raining heavily and the ground is sodden. Because of the conditions players are allowed relief from embedded balls.
But by that stage Reed has already committed the act. He has already given himself relief. He has already walked up, looked at his ball, picked it up and thrown it on the grass several feet from where it landed. He has made his own ruling about the ball being plugged.
He directs the official to an area of grass which is the depth of his forefinger and points to a spot marked with his tee and informs the official that a volunteer has told him the ball did not bounce. The inference is that if it didn’t bounce it embedded. He asks the official to check that the ball broke ground and had been embedded prior to him removing it.
The PGA Tour official, Brad Fabel, bends over the alleged indent like a urologist at a prostate examination and inserts his fingers into the grass. Reed doesn't as much as squeak. Yep, mate, that's a walnut.
So Reed takes a favourable drop, gets down in two and goes on to win the competition.
“When you have three players including yourself, three caddies and a volunteer that’s within five yards of the golf ball and no one says it bounced, you are going to mark it and check, see if the ball is embedded,” said Reed afterwards, replying to a question as to why he didn’t wait for the official before removing the ball.
Television cameras show that Reed’s play from a fairway bunker had bounced in the rough before it came to settling. It clearly takes one hop in the air and plunges into the grass. The official is misinformed. Never mind the probabilities. How many people who play golf have seen a ball embed after the first bounce on three inches of grass?
Nick Faldo said: "I've never seen a ball plug on the second bounce."
Commentator Jim Nantz said: "The optics are not good."
Anonymous on social media said: “I’m in the process of cheating, but just want you to double check my cheating to make sure I can get away with it.”
In fact the PGA Tour itself confirmed afterwards that Reed did everything by the book, but the incident gave more ammunition to critics of a player with a chequered past on tour.
Reed’s actions and the PGA Tour position of seeing nothing wrong brings into question why the game of honour and integrity continues with its virtue signalling, its hushed reverence for itself. Virtue signalling is the action or practice of publicly expressing opinion or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.
When golf finds that the shop window end of the sport on the professional tour is behaving less well than the average club player it’s time to call it out, even if it is ranked 11th in the world. Because in golf perceptions are everything.
Rory McIlroy also declared his ball had plugged in the third round after it bounced and he was given a free drop. It later transpired someone had accidentally stepped on the ball while they were looking for it.
In defence of his own position Reed indulged in whataboutery and drew a parallel with what he did and the McIlroy incident. McIlroy declared to nobody in particular that his ball was plugged and shouted to Rory Sabatini "is it a club length, Rory, or nearest point?" Sabbatini replies "club length" and walks on disinterested.
What Reed didn't do was mention McIlroy's record with the rules compared to his own. At last year's PGA at Harding Park, McIlroy insisted on giving himself a worse lie upon replacing his ball after someone had stepped on it. "To just try to be fair to the field and the tournament in general," he explained.
That compares to Reed’s sweeping of sand and improperly improving his lie during practice shots in a bunker at the 2019 World Challenge that was widely slammed. He was penalised two strokes for the incident.
In a game governed by rules, behaviour is the glue that keeps it together. The dilemma for the officials of the PGA Tour is to call out a player who has a problematic history with the rules or let it slide.
They let it slide. It’s a reminder that when they speak of the greatness of the game as they often do, the imperative is to reinforce integrity, not undermine it.