Patrick Reed is not a villain, but he plays one on TV.
In 2014, Reed proved he is really good at two things: winning golf tournaments and ticking people off. It started last March at Doral, where he beat a world-class field and then crowed in front of God and Johnny Miller that he should be considered a top five player. Reed, 23 at the time, had a pretty convincing case: It was his third victory in seven months. But golf is not a sport that smiles upon the self-aggrandizing, and Reed was mocked on social media and PGA Tour driving ranges.
Then in September at the Ryder Cup, Reed morphed into a full-blown Danny Ainge—a player you love to hate, especially if you're one of the 743 million Europeans. In a taut singles match against Henrik Stenson at Gleneagles in Scotland, Reed, after a birdie at the 7th hole, put his fingers to his lips to shush the partisan crowd. All told, he would make eight crowd-quieting birdies, including one on the final hole to win the match, set up by what he calls "the best 3-iron of my life." At a World Golf Championship event in China in November, Reed missed a short putt and unleashed a profane rant that included a homophobic slur, which was broadcast around the world. The invective was directed only at himself, but the incident furthered the belief that Reed might not be fully in control of his instrument.
Being a golf antihero can be profitable—Ian Poulter has a Ferrari for every day of the week based largely on having played the heel at a few Ryder Cups—but it turns out that Reed isn't cut out for the job. In fact, he prefers that people like him. "I don't want to be the bad guy," he says. "I just want people to realize how passionate and how determined I am and how much love I have for the game of golf."
Reed uttered those words last month on the eve of the Tournament of Champions. It was a lovely night on Maui, and Reed and his wife, Justine, were lounging on the lanai of their rented house, the Pacific audibly crashing in the distance. Reed, an adopted Texan, was still in his golf togs from that day's practice round, but his shirt was untucked, and his spikes had been swapped out in favor of the black cowboy boots he wore on his wedding day. ("I don't even own a pair of sneakers," he says.) A few days later Reed won again with an audacious rally. Four back with four holes to play, he birdied the 15th and then on the par-4 16th holed an 80-yard wedge for a game-changing eagle. Another birdie on 18 led to a playoff against Jimmy Walker, whom Reed dispatched with a textbook birdie on the first extra hole. In the last quarter century only four other players have won four Tour events before turning 25, and all need no last name: Tiger, Phil, Rory, Sergio. Reed is 16th in the World Ranking. Not quite top five, but pretty darn close.
Most striking about Reed's performance in Hawaii was not the clutch play—that's old hat—but the humility he displayed in victory. There were no histrionics after his clinching putt, and in the champion's press conference, Reed was gracious toward Walker and seemed decidedly unimpressed with himself. "He's grown up tremendously," says Reed's friend Bubba Watson, who over the years has shown an adolescent streak of his own. "When he came out he was a little mean, he was a little too confident. He's still confident, but now he does it in a nice way. I could learn a lot from him as a player and as a person."
Reed’s growth owes much to Justine, and he knows it—he favors the first-person plural when describing his success and often refers to the two of them as Team Reed, which is also part of his email prefix. Justine served as her hubby's caddie for his first two years on Tour, reluctantly giving up the bag only after she became pregnant. (Daughter Windsor-Wells is eight months old; Justine's younger brother, Kessler Karain, is now looping.) Before every tournament Justine still plots strategy with Patrick hole by hole, and afterward she debriefs him about errant shots. She rarely misses a practice session and is in regular contact with Patrick's swing coach, Kevin Kirk. "She's like an extra set of eyes for me," Kirk says. In the week before they left for Maui, it was frigid at home in Houston, but Justine spent long days watching Patrick prepare, using a space heater in the golf cart to ward off hypothermia. "I don't think that kind of togetherness would work for most couples," says Kirk, "but they thrive on it."
Less than a month earlier Team Reed stared down death. After a practice round at the Franklin Templeton Shootout in Naples, Fla., Justine was taking a bath in their hotel room while Patrick was on the bed watching TV. When he heard an unusual amount of splashing, he went to check on Justine. "She was submerged, shaking uncontrollably," he says. "She wasn't breathing, and her skin had no color. I ripped her out of the tub, but I don't know CPR so I turned her around and did the Heimlich. She's still not breathing. I did the Heimlich again, and this time she coughed up a bunch of water and finally started breathing again. It was terrifying. Doctors said if I was 10 or 15 seconds later, she would be gone." Justine had suffered a grand mal seizure, which was believed to have been caused by low magnesium and potassium levels.
In the wake of the harrowing incident "our bond grew an enormous amount," Patrick says, and the same sentiment can be applied to his relationship with the rest of Justine's family: Her sister, Kris, serves as a nanny at night, while her mom, Janet, regularly travels with the family, helping with the baby and acting as a kind of chief of staff. Patrick typically rents a house for the brood to share, and he cooks most of the dinners, charring a variety of meats on the grill and occasionally whipping up his signature dish, shrimp Alexander, having pried loose the recipe from a chef at Morton's, his favorite restaurant.
Noticeably absent are Patrick's parents, Bill and Jeannette, and his younger sister, Hannah, who reside in Augusta. They were not invited to his wedding in December 2012, which Jeannette believes is because she and Bill had suggested that Patrick was too young to get married. When Patrick made his Masters debut a few months later, they were not inside the gates of Augusta National. They've had no contact with their son since he got married, despite repeatedly emailing him and reaching out through intermediaries. A friend of Bill and Jeannette's had extra tickets to the 2014 U.S. Open, so with some trepidation, they went to Pinehurst No. 2 and followed Patrick throughout the second round. Justine was also in the gallery, but no words were exchanged. Walking up the 18th hole, Bill, Jeannette and Hannah were surrounded by police officers. They ultimately were escorted off the grounds and had their tournament badges confiscated by a USGA official who, according to Jeannette, said he was acting on Justine's wishes. (Patrick and Justine declined to comment on any aspect of their relationship with his parents.)
Jeannette's Twitter feed chronicles her longing for her son:
If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk in my garden forever.... #PatrickReed
Dose of reality ... thinking an unknown caller is actually you ... heart goes pitter patter, then reality sets in ... crash and burn.
In golf circles a popular theory for the estrangement is that Bill pushed his son so hard that their relationship broke under the strain. That doesn't align with the observations of Mike Johnson, the head pro at LSU Golf Course in Baton Rouge, where Patrick spent most of his teenage years. "In the summers and on the weekend he would show up by himself and hit balls for eight hours straight, with maybe one break in the middle to drink a Powerade," says Johnson. "Nobody had to push him, because he had an incredible drive to succeed. I don't think you can make a kid that way—it comes from inside."
Bill did make his son compete against older kids; Patrick can still recall the details of his first victory, as a seven-year-old, when he took down a bunch of nine-year-olds. He replicated that success at every level, including leading Baton Rouge's University Lab High to two state championships. His biggest battles were often internal. "We had to pull him off the golf course plenty of times because of his behavior," says Jeannette. "He was embarrassing himself, and us. Patrick never had trouble in school or any social setting. In fact, he could charm pretty much anyone he met. But on the course he was like a volcano waiting to erupt."
Reed burned plenty of bridges during a disastrous freshman year at Georgia. He alienated teammates and coaches alike with his me-first attitude and an assortment of alleged misdeeds he has declined to discuss. An arrest for underage drinking and possession of a fake I.D. hastened his departure. He transferred to Augusta State and eventually moved back in with his parents. He again had trouble fitting in, and at one point his teammates discussed voting him off the squad. "Patrick's goal was to be the best player in the world—it's all he talked about," says Josh Gregory, Reed's coach at Augusta State. "He was driven to win, but more than that, he was afraid to fail. Not everybody on the team had the same desire and, quite honestly, there were some rocky times."
Yet Reed's enduring legacy is that he carried the Jaguars to back-to-back national championships, going 3--0 in the match-play portion each time. In 2011 the Jaguars took down Georgia to win the title. A Bulldogs loyalist told ESPN.com that Reed's triumph was the "death of karma."
It was at Augusta State that Reed began dating Justine, who is four years older. By the time he turned pro, in June 2011, she had completed two undergraduate degrees and was working as a nurse, but Justine couldn't resist the siren song of competition. At Klein Forest High in Houston she had been a standout swimmer and soccer player, and she turned out to be a natural as a caddie. "She helped me so much," says Patrick. "When the gun goes off, I want to fire at every flag and try to birdie every hole, but she's very poised, and she would get me to slow down and think things through."
After bombing out at Q school in late 2011, Reed decided to try to play his way onto the Tour through Monday qualifying, the Darwinian shootouts in which up to 100 players gun for four spots, with a 65 or lower usually required to land one of them. It is here that Reed forged more heavy mettle. "You have to be superaggressive and play with no fear," he says. "You really learn to trust in yourself."
Reed successfully Mondayed six out of eight times. "That's unheard of," says Kirk. "You take a really good player, and if he plays well and has some luck, maybe he makes it through two out of eight."
At the 2013 Wyndham Championship, Reed played his way into a playoff against amateur-days rival Jordan Spieth, a hotshot rookie being touted as the future of U.S. golf. On the second extra hole Reed lost his drive into the trees. With a hook stance, he played a low, screaming cut under the branches, over a bunker and to within seven feet of the hole. It might have been the shot of the year on Tour, and Reed brushed in the putt to vanquish Spieth. He hasn't stopped winning since.
As Reed has backed up his big talk, his colleagues have grudgingly begun to accept him; even feelings about his notorious top five comment have softened. Says Matt Kuchar, "A lot of guys out here might think that, but he's the only one with the guts to say it. Good for him."
The natural progression for Reed is to begin contending at the major championships. Augusta National is a particularly good fit, given that he's a streaky-good putter and his high draw is the ideal ball flight. To win down the street from his college stomping grounds would be a storybook accomplishment, notwithstanding the complications of having his estranged parents in town.
Justine is looking forward to her husband's considerable achievements being celebrated without the shadows of the past. "He didn't grow up at a fancy country club. He was a Monday qualifier who's had to fight for everything he's ever gotten," she says. "Why can't we have that fairy tale too?"
A good fairy tale needs a hero and a villain. What makes Reed so compelling is that he's perfect for either role.