Grinding Gears: Masters show problem with sports narratives

Eric He | Daily Trojan

Sometimes, something happens in sports that doesn’t quite fit the narrative — like when Patrick Reed won the Masters on Sunday.

Golf is a unique sport in that people are far too polite to get into Twitter fights or boo golfers on the course. Everybody gets a cheer or round of applause when they finish a hole, no matter who they are or how many strokes it took (hence, the phrase “golf clap”).

So when Reed clinched the Masters with a putt on the 18th hole, the fans cheered because it’s proper decorum. But if this had been another sport, there would definitely have been boos;  almost nobody wanted Reed to win.

There is a backstory for Reed. He is not built like an athlete, he is estranged from his parents and he is generally regarded as a lone-wolf in the sport. When his fellow golfers are socializing on the driving range, he’s got his earbuds in. He has a troubled past, having been kicked off his college team at the University of Georgia for allegedly cheating and stealing from teammates, as well as an arrest for underage drinking. On the pro tour, he has been criticized for shushing fans and calling himself a “top-five player” despite being ranked nowhere near the top five. And then there was the time he uttered a gay slur after missing a putt.

It was no surprise, then, when Reed received far quieter applause than his playing partner, Rory McIlroy, did before the final round, despite Reed entering the day with the lead. Throughout the day, loud cheers erupted when fan-favorites such as McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth sank putts to cut into Reed’s lead, as opposed to the tepid clapping for Reed. With Tiger Woods out of contention, the saving grace would have to be one of the sport’s well-liked stars winning the tournament — and if not that, anyone but Reed.

But he won, clinching his first major tournament and donning the coveted Masters Green Jacket. Then came all the stories about his past, painting him as a disingenuous outsider who stole the trophy from more-deserving golfers. He was even (rightfully) blasted on Twitter after the CBS announcers revealed his affinity for Imagine Dragons, a band as generic as it is uninspiring.

Music tastes notwithstanding, Reed was a villain. Not only did the villain win, but he also did so in a way that is difficult to reconcile with. This is not like a “hated” team winning a championship. When Alabama wins in college football or Duke in college basketball or the New England Patriots in the NFL, it conforms to the proper villain narrative. It is more of a “playful” hate, almost respectful in a sense.

Patrick Reed is not the Patriots. He is an antagonist with character flaws that have turned him into a persona non grata in the game of golf. There is no respect here. He has been maligned by fans, rejected by his peers, cast aside by the sport. And he’s also the reigning Masters champion.

That is what makes us squirm, that something happened outside of the scope of both what we wanted and expected to happen. This aspect of sports — the judgement, the narrative-forming — is not ideal. Reed has absolutely done some bad things in the past, but he is not O.J. Simpson. We aren’t even giving him a chance to show that he might have changed. We have signed, sealed and delivered him as a villain, forcing him to defend himself in what should have been the greatest moment of his golf career.

The only way Reed can change minds is if he keeps winning and makes do with increased time in the spotlight. That is the only way to flip this new narrative, and only then will the crowd actually cheer when he sinks a putt.

Eric He is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Thursdays.