DeChambeau, Slow Play Controversy Overshadow Reed’s Victory at Northern Trust

Daniel Rapaport
Sports Illustrated

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Sometime between all the stopwatches and Twitter threads and rules disputes and press-conference rants and putting-green confrontations, an actual golf tournament happened here at Liberty National.

A half-decent one, too. Patrick Reed—no stranger to controversy himself—slammed the door on his post-Masters slump by converting on a 54-hole lead to win the Northern Trust. A two-under 69 on Sunday was good enough for a one-shot victory over Abraham Ancer, with Harold Varner III and Jon Rahm finishing a shot further back in a tie for third. Reed vaults into second place in the FedEx Cup standings and now has a distinct chance to win the Cup’s $15 million grand prize should he ride this wave into high finishes at the remaining two FEC playoff events: next week’s BMW Championship and the season-ending Tour Championship.

The victory also makes Reed, famously a match-play specialist, a frontrunner to receive one of Tiger Woods’s four captains picks for the Presidents Cup in December. The points standings lock after the BMW, and Reed will be outside the auto-qualifying top eight spots looking in unless he wins again, making Woods’s decision process—whether to use picks on himself or Phil Mickelson or Jordan Spieth, or other less-accomplished players in better form—that much more complicated.

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Unless you were paying close attention, though, you might have missed that subplot. It’s understandable if your attention was elsewhere. The on-course action was thoroughly overshadowed this week by yet another data point in what has been a drama-saturated season on the PGA Tour. This time, it was all about pace of play.

Bryson DeChambeau’s pace of play, to be more specific.

This latest fiasco started when two videos surfaced on Twitter Friday, both showing the notoriously deliberate DeChambeau taking more than two minutes to hit relatively straightforward shots. This led to a breathtaking—and somewhat unfair—outpouring of criticism directed at the polarizing 25-year-old.  And not just from trigger-happy fans acting emboldened from behind a computer screen; it came from the same players he competes against weekly.

Eddie Pepperell called him a “single minded twit.” Roberto Castro said he is an “insult to actual physicists and engineers.” Ian Poulter didn’t name names, but you don’t need a graduate degree to know who he’s referencing when he says, "there are a few players that continually disrespect their fellow pros and continue to break the rules without a conscience.” Justin Thomas said he felt bad about singling out DeChambeau before singling out DeChambeau. Resident alpha male Brooks Koepka confronted him on the putting green after DeChambeau complained that players took shots over social media without speaking to him face-to-face.

DeChambeau defended himself with vigor after Saturday’s round, his emotion sometimes outpacing his linguistic capabilities as he rambled to an impassioned but erratic explanation of why he feels like he was unjustly singled out. He has a point—DeChambeau needs to speed up, but the same can be said of more than half of professionals. And, it should be noted, he is not slow on every single shot. He does not have a particularly slow pre-shot routine and, as he’ll be the first to point out, tends to walk faster than others and arrive at his ball first. He also deserves credit for doing his best to thoughtfully offer his side of the story rather than having his team put out out a vanilla PR statement. Still, he has emerged as the poster boy for a slow play issue that dominated headlines throughout the week. Even if he wishes it weren’t the case.

“The FedExCup Playoffs are about those guys playing and doing their best, not about slow play,” he said after Sunday’s round. There is, of course, a phrase missing there: should. The FedEx Cup Playoffs should be about those guys. If only precise iron shots and nifty up-and-downs (not hit by Tiger Woods) could get the people going quite like some good-old fashioned drama.

Add this week’s developments to an increasingly lengthy list of controversies in golf over the last 12 months. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more confrontational period in a sport that prides itself on gentlemanly decorum. From Reed’s callout of his Ryder Cup teammates, to Matt Kuchar’s caddie stiffing, to repeated complaints about the new knee-high drop, to Sergio Garcia’s vandalizing of multiple courses around the globe, to Koepka’s public feud with Brandel Chamblee, to players reportedly considering boycotting the U.S. Open to stick it to the USGA… so often this year, the biggest story in golf has had nothing to do with birdies or bogeys.

At least this time, perhaps something will come of all the outrage. The slow play issue came to such a head that the PGA Tour simply couldn’t ignore it any longer. In a heartening reminder that calls for change can still bring about change, the Tour announced Sunday that it would re-visit its toothless pace-of-play policy. Until the Tour hands out stroke penalties for glacial play, something it has done just once since 1995, there is little motivation for players like DeChambeau to seriously reconsider their habits. Still, there is an unmistakable (and overdue) sense of urgency among everyone with a stake in professional golf to get this sorted, so a perfectly good golf tournament doesn’t become an undercard, so the most talked-about player during a FedEx Cup playoff event isn’t the guy who finished tied for 24th.

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