MELBOURNE, Australia — Patrick Reed’s drive Thursday morning on the par-4 first hole at Royal Melbourne Golf Club hit the runway-hard fairway and started skittering toward a greenside bunker.
The bundled-up fans seated behind the tee box, tracking the ball’s progress on a giant video screen, urged it to find the sand. When it complied, the Presidents Cup was alive with the sounds of schadenfreude.
Reed, 29, earned the nickname Captain America because of his success in team-play events like the Ryder Cup and this week’s biennial competition, a typically genial affair pitting the top United States players against those from outside Europe. But he arrived here this week under an unusually harsh magnifying glass, having to answer to accusations by the International team member Cameron Smith, among others, that he is a cheat.
There is no worse slur in professional golf, a sport where gentlemanliness is next to godliness. With a playing arena too large and variable to perfectly police, the game’s integrity rests on the trust that its players will faithfully abide by its rules, and the belief that losing honorably is better than winning through even the slightest bending the rules.
So when Smith said recently of Reed, “I don’t have any sympathy for anyone who cheats,” it was as if he was injecting venom into an event that traditionally has been more exhibition than competition. To Reed, Smith’s marks were the equivalent of slapping his face with his golf glove.
“It goes from wanting to beat those guys to it now turning personal,” Reed said. “So it’s going to be a fun week.”
Smith’s dig came in reaction to an incident involving Reed at last week’s Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. As he was taking a few practice swings in a bunker, Reed created sparks by swiping the sand behind the ball before taking his shot.
He was assessed a two-stroke penalty by a rules official alerted to the infraction — the exact margin by which he eventually would lose to the winner, Henrik Stenson — but defended his actions at the time and again this week by saying he did not mean to break any rules.
“At the end of the day, whenever you’re out there, if you do something unintentionally that breaks the rules it’s not considered cheating,” he said.
Reed’s lack of contrition rankled many people in golf, some of whom wanted him to commit a kind of double jeopardy: to accept his two-shot penalty and apologize, too. His refusal to fall on his sword — or his wedge, as it were — only extended the story.
“I think it’s a case of what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Smith, a 26-year-old Australian. “I think there’s, you know, I think there’s something to be said about that.”
Rory McIlroy, a four-time major champion from Northern Ireland, came to Reed’s defense in a Golf Channel interview this week. He said that the live shot of Reed’s brushing the sand “isn’t as incriminating at the slow-mo” replay.
“It’s almost like, a lot of people within the game, it’s almost like a hobby to sort of kick him when he’s down,” McIlroy said of Reed.
It was far easier for golf to polish its pristine image in the days before high-definition television. On the last hole of the 1974 British Open at Royal Lytham, the South African Gary Player appeared to improve his lie by swiping dirt on his takeaway. His actions looked eerily similar to Reed’s own transgression last week, but no one — especially not his peers — called out Player at the time.
Instead, his brush with sand avoided detection, and he went on to win by four strokes, collecting the eighth of his nine major titles.
Thirty-five years later, the consequences were considerably more swift. Slugger White, the PGA tour’s vice president of rules and competitions, imposed the two-stroke penalty after a discussion with Reed that lasted less than five minutes. Reed accepted the decision, and White expressed satisfaction with the outcome.
“I don’t know if he could have seen it as clearly as we did, but he could not have been a better gentleman,” White told reporters afterward.
Still, decorum comes before competition in golf’s unwritten rules, if not the dictionary. On Thursday, Reed’s manners were impeccable; he doffed his billed cap before he shook the hands of officials at the first tee, and he didn’t react to the fan who cried out, “Are you going to make your caddie carry 14 clubs and a shovel?”
The fans who cheered when Reed’s opening drive landed in the bunker were deviating from golf’s etiquette, but they would suffer no penalty.
By the end of the day, the International team, a decided underdog, had jumped out to a 4-1 lead over Reed and the Americans. And the stage was set for more fireworks when Tiger Woods, the United States captain, announced he was pairing Simpson and Reed in the third foursomes match Friday. Would Ernie Els, the International captain, counter with Smith, and the confrontation the fans wanted?
Els, one of the game’s true gentlemen, refrained from throwing chum in the water. He put Marc Leishman and Abraham Ancer against Reed and Simpson and saved Smith for the fifth match. For Els’s squad, the first day had produced enough drama. There was no reason to manufacture any more.