Michaux: Patrick Reed, Rory McIlroy revved up for another duel
It might not be the showdown everyone expected, but it’s the showdown everyone wants.
Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy will reprise their 2016 Ryder Cup singles match in the final pairing of the 2018 Masters Tournament on Sunday. If it’s half as dramatic as their Hazeltine duel, the Georgia pines will be rocking and roaring.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun to go out there,” said Reed, who went 5-under over the last 11 holes Saturday to take a three-shot lead into the final round.
(Disclaimer: It’s obviously not just a two-man race, with a handful of other world-class players capable of shooting low and stealing the green jacket, but for the sake of narrative we’ll overlook that for the moment.)
The final round of a major championship at Augusta National Golf Club provides a different kind of emotional stakes than the final day of an international team event. The roars that erupt in the groups ahead have consequences for the two men in the final pairing. Nationalism doesn’t take center stage. Masters patrons want a good show, regardless of who’s providing the fireworks.
“It will be calmer,” Reed admitted. “There’s a lot of stuff that you can do at Ryder Cup that you can’t do at Augusta National.”
That said, there will be anticipation for what a pair of willing pugilists like Reed and McIlroy can provide playing side by side. Their performance at Hazeltine set a high bar.
“It’s probably one of the best matches we ever played,” Reed said. “It was probably also one of the most exhausting matches we ever played.”
Reed vs. Rory two years ago was one of the most epic head-to-head battles in golf history, a raucous display of one-upmanship right until Reed strutted off with a 1-up victory.
Like then, McIlroy will be trying to trigger a massive rally, as his European team was three points behind heading into the singles matches. He was sent out to be the spark.
Reed bore the burden of being the stopper, and the pressure of the moment weighed on him. In John Feinstein’s book "The First Major: The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup," Reed conceded to being “really tight” before a showdown that would set the tone for the final day.
Vice captain Tiger Woods broke his tension on the practice range.
“He told me a dirty joke,” Reed said.
What ensued was a festival of screaming and fist pumps and finger wagging and crowd taunting that defied golfing norms. McIlroy buried a long birdie putt on top of Reed for a halve and stoked up the American crowd by cupping his hand to his ear and shouting, “I can’t hear you.” That capped a stretch of four consecutive birdies by Rory that actually lost ground.
Sunday amidst the azaleas and pines figures to be a much more civilized affair, even if the scoring goes deep.
“It won’t be quite as intense as that Ryder Cup match, I don’t think,” said McIlroy, who shot 65 on Saturday. “I think we’ll obviously still be feeling it. It’s the last round of a major championship, and Patrick is going for his first and I’m going for something else.”
The gamesmanship, however, started in the interview room Saturday night. McIlroy took the dais first and delivered the first volley.
“Patrick has got a three-shot lead; I feel like all the pressure is on him,” McIlroy said. “He’s got to go out and protect that, and he’s got a few guys chasing him that are pretty big-time players. He’s got that to deal with and sleep on tonight.”
Ten minutes later, it was Reed’s turn to respond.
“I am leading. I mean, I guess so,” he said of the pressure. “But at the same time, he’s trying to go for the career grand slam. You can put it either way.”
Even removed by one pairing Saturday, the two put on a good show with full awareness of what the other was doing. When McIlroy chipped in for eagle on No. 8 to tie for the lead, it lit a fire under Reed, who responded with three consecutive birdies to re-seize the high ground and a pair of back-nine eagles to build a cushion.
“I just felt like from that point, the crowds were just electrified and they were going,” he said. “Just one of those things, you just had to ride the momentum and keep it going. ... If I feel like I’m playing really well, I almost feel like I can kick it into another gear and go even deeper.”
For his part, McIlroy has been waiting seven years since his back-nine collapse in 2011 to get another chance like this, and his position gives him a chance to do what he does best.
“I want to show everybody what I’ve got and show Patrick Reed what I’ve got,” McIlroy said of squaring off in Augusta with the guy who helped win two NCAA titles at Augusta State. “I want to spoil the party.
“I feel like I can go out there and play like I’ve got nothing to lose. If I can do that, I feel like I’ll be OK.”
Reed knows he has his hands full with more than just McIlroy chasing history. There’s a murderer’s row of talent queued up if he wavers. But he learned something important in the crucible at Hazeltine.
“Biggest thing I can just pull from it is, I was going up head-to-head with Rory and was able to put together a really good round,” Reed said of the Ryder Cup experience. “And when he tried to make a counter, I was able to always stay ahead and keep going.”
The stage is set and the stakes are even higher. Let the sparks fly.
“I can’t imagine there’s going to be much chat out there tomorrow,” McIlroy said. “Not that I have anything against Patrick. We’ve actually got quite a good relationship. But at the end of the day, it’s business and we’re both trying to do something pretty special.”