There are a handful of constant themes in the Masters script produced every year on the movie set that is Augusta National Golf Club. Drama, of course. Often some tragedy. Scenes of euphoric joy, moments of quiet despair. The occasional old love affair rekindled. A healthy dose of sentimentality. Heroes are abundant, villains invisible.
Well, until this year.
There is no more polarizing player in golf than Patrick Reed, whose approach to the game — and life — borders on pugilistic. It serves him well in the coliseum of a Ryder Cup, where his high school jock bravado fits in. He knows he wouldn’t win a popularity contest in the locker room — and wouldn’t dare even enter one among his own family or former college teammates — but none of that has ever dented his bulletproof self-belief.
His is a level of swagger that demands backing up, a holding of nerve in a testing moment. That moment finally presented itself Sunday at Augusta National when he teed off in the final group with Rory McIlroy. Reed was not found wanting, even before a ball was struck.
“I walked up to the first tee and had a really welcoming cheer from the fans, but then Rory walked up to the tee, you know, his cheer was a little louder,” he said. “That’s another thing that just kind of played into my hand.”
In the biggest moment of his life, Reed was comparing the decibel level of the cheers and using it as fuel to perform.
The final round was hyped as a showdown between Reed and McIlroy, albeit free of the partisan hollering that fueled their memorably boisterous Ryder Cup singles match two years ago. (That just isn’t done at Augusta National, sir.) But the Masters has a way of going off-script on Sundays. Favorites falter, leads evaporate, charges are mounted, nerves are jangled.
By the time the sun sets, only one dream is realized. All others are crushed.
As is often the case in the final round of a major championship, the best golf was produced by those playing with the freedom that comes from a lack of proximity to the lead. Like Jordan Spieth, whose comfort level at Augusta National seems to rival that of Roger Federer at Wimbledon. He began nine strokes back — declared irrelevant even by the front page of his hometown newspaper in Dallas on Sunday morning — but launched a scintillating roller-coaster run at a second Masters title. When he dropped a bomb for birdie on the 16th, a putt reminiscent of that holed by Jack Nicklaus on his way to victory in 1975, the improbable seemed inevitable.
That’s when drama gave way to tragedy, as it often does with Spieth, with a final-hole bogey courtesy of some tree pruning with his drive.
“Everyone loves battling Patrick because he loves it so much and eats it up,” a sanguine Spieth said afterward.
Competitors respect their own kind. Love is optional.
In the end, second place went to Rickie Fowler, a man once criticized for Sunday swoons but now showing as much fortitude as his cadre of major-winning pals. Nine top-10 finishes in majors speaks to his sublime talent. The three seconds point to the lurking danger of impatience and frustration, which can’t be far from the mind of a proto-millennial approaching his 30th birthday.
The three young Americans are just about the only players to leave Georgia with an upbeat outlook. McIlroy authored the best putting performance of his Masters career, for three rounds. His flatstick faltered when it mattered though, leading to a lackluster round on a day that promised so much more.
“Of course it’s frustrating. It’s hard to take any positives from it right now,” he admitted candidly after shooting 74 to finish T-5, his fourth top 10 in the four attempts he’s made at completing the career Grand Slam. “I play this golf course well. I just haven’t played it well enough at the right time.”
The World Golf Hall of Fame is full of men who know how difficult it is to win at Augusta National. Ask Tom Weiskopf or Johnny Miller or Greg Norman or Tom Kite or Ernie Els. The pressure is amped up at the Masters. It may have the smallest and weakest field of the four majors, but it is demonstrably the toughest to win. The frequency of the heartbreaking collapses tells you that. And that its champions never fade to obscurity. Fans don’t forget who wins here. You’d struggle to find anyone who can tell you a single result Mike Weir has posted in the last decade, but they know where he’s eating dinner Tuesday of Masters week.
The Masters script always includes walk-ons by veteran scene-stealers. This year those parts again went to Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples. The two former champions played together Sunday and both finished T-38 at even par. Couples has competed sparingly this year and looked stricken with back pain for most of the week, but Augusta National is an annual elixir for the decrepit 58-year-old.
Couples was edged by one stroke in the contest among the game’s most famous balky backs. Tiger Woods’ inspiring comeback from fusion surgery had optimistic fans predicting a fifth Masters victory. Instead they witnessed a largely dismal performance, with Tiger’s only vintage form coming in his attempt to put a positive spin on his showing.
“I was pleased with the way I was able to drive it, but I just could not convert with my irons,” said the man who hit just 30 of the 56 fairways. “I hit it well enough off the tee to do some things, but I hit my irons awful for the week.” Fifty-three men made the cut. Woods ranked T-50 in driving accuracy.
Yet for most fans, his presence was enough, and Woods seemed to appreciate that.
“For a couple of years I’ve just been coming here just to eat. And now to be able to play this golf course and to be able to tee it up and play in the Masters, this is one of the greatest walks in all of golf,” he said. “I missed it. I really did.”
The man who ranked last in fairways hit was Phil Mickelson, who declared “I hit one good shot this whole week” after signing for a Sunday 67. (It was his 7-iron into 17, if you’re curious). “The difficult thing for me is I continue to put a little bit too much pressure on myself in the majors now because I know that I don’t have a ton of time to win them,” he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by plenty of Mickelson’s younger colleagues, too, those who have time on their side. Eighty-six men drove down Magnolia Lane, most of them just for the spectacle. Perhaps only a couple of dozen had realistic hopes of slipping into a green jacket. But as the 82nd Masters illustrated, the gap between hope and belief is a chasm some simply can’t bridge.
Patrick Reed did it, and while taking incoming fire from the best in the game. His was a Masters earned through resilience, not given by the shortcomings of others. He wouldn’t much care that plenty of folks gathered around the clubhouse before the final round were hoping for a different outcome, for a hero to triumph rather than the villain.
“He’ll have a lot more friends if he wins a green jacket,” sniffed one of the club’s actual green jackets.
Perhaps not. But he’ll certainly have a lot more respect.
Golfweek, April 8, 2018.