PALM HARBOR, Fla. – With the early wave on the course and the afternoon participants yet to arrive, the Innisbrook driving range was empty late Friday morning with one notable exception.
Situated on the far right side of the facility, with swirling winds buffeting the nearby overhanging trees, stood the Masters champ. Patrick Reed was busy, grinding his way through a practice session more than two hours before his second-round tee time at the Valspar Championship and with a new set of eyes behind him. Carefully evaluating each swing was noted instructor David Leadbetter, who has worked with dozens of well-known professionals but who was meeting Reed for the first time.
There they stood for more than an hour, with Reed ripping tight draws with a midiron before switching to driver. Leadbetter ran through a drill focusing on the takeaway, then showed Reed’s caddie and brother-in-law, Kessler Karain, what to look for. Swings were filmed via cell phone and quickly analyzed.
It was a thorough session, somewhat unique given the pre-round timing and certainly surprising given the pairing of player and instructor. It didn’t pay immediate dividends, with Reed shooting a 4-over 75 to miss the cut by a mile at an event where he finished second a year ago.
But coming off a Sunday 78 at TPC Sawgrass and after struggling at Innisbrook, one thing is abundantly clear with the Masters just three weeks away: the man still wearing the green jacket is searching for answers.
Reed spoke openly after the round about his decision to bring in Leadbetter, one that he attributed to geographic proximity rather than a change in coaching strategy. Leadbetter was already in the area, and he was working with another player on the Innisbrook practice range earlier this week when Reed’s motion caught his eye.
“I just saw this swing and it was like, man. I wouldn’t say Bubba-ish, but it was longer than I remembered. And I thought, ‘Wow, that looks a little bit different,’” Leadbetter said. “The swing was getting a lot longer than it was, even his wife noticed that.”
Leadbetter revealed that it was actually Reed’s wife, Justine, who reached out via phone shortly after Reed’s 6-over 77 in the opening round. The Reeds are a tight-knit group, with Justine serving as caddie before her brother took over once she became pregnant with the first of the couple’s two children. Few know his swing better than she does, having watched her husband play hundreds, if not thousands, of rounds.
“The great thing is we’re basically on the same wavelength, her and I,” Reed said. “Because of that, before I even finished my round I didn’t even have to tell her that, 'Hey, is there any way we can get someone in to just take a peek.'”
Reed has expressed confidence in recent weeks as his Masters title defense draws near, and that self-belief barely wavered after he finished ahead of four players and six shots adrift of teenage amateur Akshay Bhatia. In Reed’s mind, three opening-round swings cost him six shots, and Friday’s mediocre effort was quickly chalked up to a balky putter.
But the decision to reach out to Leadbetter comes at a critical juncture, and given that it’s with an instructor who has previously never worked with Reed, it speaks to an underlying sense of urgency as he gets set to return down Magnolia Lane.
“Justine said, ‘Hey, listen, would you be prepared just to have a look at Patrick? He’s struggling at the moment. He’s sort of lost a little bit,’” Leadbetter said. “Obviously you’ve got a world-class player, and I look at golf swings all the time, so I know swings. And I’ve always liked his golf swing.”
The stats indicate that Reed has reason to reach for the panic button. His results have been respectable, with five top-25s this year, and this week’s missed cut is his first since the PGA Championship in August.
But the ball-striking numbers are eye-catching for all the wrong reasons, and they portend larger issues: Reed is 116th this season in strokes gained: off-the-tee, and he’s 147th in strokes gained: approach. His world-class short game has saved him in spurts, as it did last week when he played his first 54 holes at TPC Sawgrass in 9 under, but the ball-striking woes have been catching up to him with increased frequency.
This week on the claustrophobic Copperhead Course he made nearly as many double bogeys (five) as birdies (six), and with 143 players in the field he finished 142nd in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
“Just need to stop putting so much pressure on the good parts of my game,” he said. “When you do that, then all of a sudden when things just aren’t clicking, it turns out to be a little tougher out there.”
Bearing a smile that defied his 10-over total, Reed spoke with the confidence of a man who knows exactly what it takes to capture the game’s most exclusive title: that the swing isn’t far off, that an early exit in Tampa is actually a blessing in disguise with a potentially long stay in Austin up next. That the impromptu session with Leadbetter should bear fruit down the line, and that his major champion game didn’t leave him – it simply “took a little bit of a break.”
“These past two days, yeah, the score sucks,” he said. “But it’s a lot closer than what the score was these past two days. I’m not too worried about it.”
It’s surely a bit easier to cut yourself some slack with the green jacket still hanging in the closet, and the reclamation project facing Reed seems far less arduous than that of another Masters champ, Jordan Spieth. But amid a week to forget and with his stat line in shambles, Reed felt enough uncertainty to reach for an extra set of eyes.
If he isn’t worried yet, he might be getting close.