After Bubba Watson won the Northern Trust Open earlier this year, I wrote a column on how I believe he's great for the game because he inspires passion amongst the masses. Fans either love Bubba or love to hate him. There is no in between.
The ensuing reaction only fortified my argument. Some read these words and contacted me, asking, "Who could hate a fun-loving, big-hitting guy like Bubba?" Others responded with, "How could anyone actually love a guy who throws temper tantrums like that?"
Watson is undeniably polarizing, which in so many ways is more beneficial to the game than being universally well-liked. Think about it this way: If we all liked every NFL team, wouldn't autumn Sundays be a lot more boring?
By the same token, if every golfer was Steve Stricker – a likeable guy who’s impossible to root against – golf fans wouldn’t be as fully invested.
Quite simply, there aren't enough golfers who inspire passionate reactions.
We can debate at 19th holes around the world as to whether Tiger Woods is the best player of all-time or the most dominant, but it's inarguable that he's been the game's most polarizing, which is one reason for the constant media coverage of his every maneuver.
Each of these players owns a legion of both devout fans and incessant “haters,” as the kids call ‘em. Not that any of them seem to mind. It recalls an old quote by longtime Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes: “I'm not trying to win a popularity poll; I'm trying to win football games.”
What golf needs is more of these players. More players who trigger something greater than apathy when their names are on the leaderboard. Professional wrestling is fake – sorry for the lack of a spoiler alert here – and while I’d never suggest the PGA Tour tries to emulate the WWE, its executives can learn from the presence of “good guys” and “bad guys.” They should at least understand how separate factions can benefit business.
All of which brings us to Patrick Reed.
He is the rare golfer – and even rarer young golfer – who inspires passion amongst the masses.
This week’s 54-hole leader at the Quicken Loans National threw his hat into the polarization arena three months ago. Directly following his WGC-Cadillac Championship victory, he was interviewed on live television while still standing on the 18th green.
Reed, just 23 and playing his second full PGA Tour season, offered up what were considered to be a few societal faux pas within seconds.
First, he compared his third career victory to the accomplishments of a certain 14-time major champion.
“I just don’t see a lot of guys that have done that,” he said, “besides Tiger Woods, of course, and all of the other legends of the game.”
He then went one step further and assessed his current place within the game’s elite.
“I believe in myself – especially after how hard I’ve worked – that I’m one of the top five players in the world.”
The aftermath has turned into a maelstrom of support and discouragement.
Fans have unified in opposing camps that either respect his bravado or condemn his conviction. Introduce his name at one of those aforementioned 19th holes and a debate will instantly surface. Not just about Reed individually, but about the difference between confidence versus cockiness and about the virtue of self-belief and, yes, even about those damned kids today and how they don’t respect their elders.
This debate will inspire everything but indifference, which might be the layman’s definition of polarization.
In the wake of his latest foray into the spotlight – Reed failed to earn his fourth win in less than a year, instead posting a final-round 77 to finish in a share of 11th place – it’s important to remember that polarization is not synonymous with resistance. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Those who draw passion should be embraced for their role; they should be lauded for dual positions as both hero and villain; they should be celebrated for not being just another guy who stops being relevant 15 minutes after hoisting a trophy.
While spotlighted on television wearing his traditional Sunday red shirt and black pants – just like the guy with whom he compared himself at Doral – Reed was a whirlwind of exceptional shots punctuated by fist pumps and terrible ones followed by emotional outbursts.
Once again, he will be hailed for his confidence, emulating Woods at his own tournament. And once again, he will be condemned for his behavior, that voice making a bigger impact than his game.
Those witnessing his struggles either felt empathy or schadenfreude, but at least they felt something. In a game that features so few polarizing players, that alone is reason to be celebrated.