AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rickie Fowler had just unleashed Augusta National’s 18th gallery into its legendary birdie-celebrating cacophony, leaping cheers and lusty hugs vibrating the earth as they rolled around the edge of a green packed 10 deep.
Just a few pairings earlier, Jordan Spieth had conducted a similar soundtrack as his friend Fowler, a magnificent round of 8 under par nearly carrying him to a historic comeback win, touching off the type of celebration so unique to the stroll up the most famous final fairway in golf.
So one pairing later, when yet another young American star would stalk that green with a Masters green jacket in his sights, the band was sure to keep on playing.
But when Patrick Reed’s par on the 17th hole was inserted on the course’s main scoreboard, there were audible groans around that 18th green. When Reed’s subsequent approach shot came to rest a short distance above the hole, leaving him two makeable putts to win his first major title, the signature Masters roar was decidedly tame. The kindhearted will insist this was a gesture of love for Fowler, or perhaps even a plea for bonus playoff golf. But the realist knows better.
Oh, Reed made his two-putt to win the Masters, drained the final shot that would unleash his own personal dream-fulfilling fist pumps, found his wife (and onetime caddie) Justine for the most coveted hug in the game, completed the wild, impressive day that cast him as a poised, patient, and defensive boxer fending off everyone from his mind-game playing, final-pairing partner to those fellow Americans charging at him from beyond. He took all those punches and more, including a crowd that made it clear from the very first hole it would root for anyone, including grand-slam seeking Rory McIlroy, over him.
He sure as heck isn’t the most popular man on the tour, but he proved on Sunday he should be one of the most feared.
“A lot of people, for a long time, maybe don’t say his name as often as they should. That’s what I think,” Justine was saying shortly after her husband completed his win. “I’ve always thought he’s a great player. That’s what he did today. He showed his true colors.”
Maybe that’s part of the problem. How and why Reed has been cast as golf’s easiest villain — he literally wore a black Nike cap Sunday in contrast to the white one playing partner McIlroy wore — can certainly be traced across a history that includes a little too much arrogance for some, not quite enough weight training for others, and seemingly just enough awkward accusations of bad behavior and family discord for all.
He’d declared himself a top five golfer in the game after an early series of tour victories, had the audacity to want to mimic Tiger Woods with Sunday red shirts. He looks decidedly doughy in whatever outfit he wears. He was kicked off the University of Georgia golf team for violating various team rules, transferred to nearby Augusta State and was nearly voted off the island, this time by teammates, once again. He reportedly has no relationship with his own parents and sister, but employs his brother-in-law Kessler Karain as caddie once Justine got too busy with their two children. That’s a pretty good resume for disdain.
But he also led tiny Augusta State to two national championships, and even more impressive, played well enough in two Ryder Cups to earn the nickname “Captain America.” He’s no longer prone to on-course tantrums and has done nothing but back up his top-five claim. Isn’t it time to move on, to join the celebration for a new American major winner?
These fans sure didn’t seem ready, not from the jump.
“I walked up to the first tee and had a really welcoming cheer, but then when Rory walked up to the tee, you know, his cheer was a little louder,” Reed said, the bright pink of a Nike shirt designed to match the course’s blooming azaleas peeking out from his new green jacket. “But that’s another thing that just kind of played into my hand. Not only did it fuel my fire a little bit, but also, it just takes the pressure off of me and adds it back to him. . . . You had a lot of the guys picking him to win over me, and it’s just kind of one of those things that the more chatter you have in your ear and about expectations and everything, the harder it is to play golf.”
Oh, Reed heard it all, able to rattle off the television commentators who’d spent the morning predicting a McIlroy win, damning Reed with the faint praise of three good days of golf while making it clear they were sure those would melt under the pressure of a major Sunday. He internalized every bit of fuel he could to make McIlory eat his own Saturday night warnings about the pressure being on the frontrunner.
Rory was right. And Reed proved to have absolutely no problem handling it, not when Spieth roared into a tie at 14-under, birdies on the 12th and 16th holes unleashing a few more of those impossible-not-to-hear roars and nearly brought Spieth to a historic nine-hole comeback. Not when Fowler birdied 18 and actually passed Spieth into second place, one shot off the leader. Because all that leader did was save a dicey par on 13 to stay at 14-under and grab one final birdie on the 14th to seal the win.
“He made a lot of those grinding par putts that meant a lot and paid dividends in the end, obviously,” Karain said. “Coming into 13, 15, just that back nine and those last six holes, we were thinking, ‘We need to capitalize on those par fives,’ and when you don’t it really hurts when you see these guys lighting it up in front of you. They were putting the pressure on. He’s just really good under pressure.”
It was a lesson Karain learned as a college senior, when his sister first brought this new boyfriend home and the two young men couldn’t help but go at it in pool, in bowling, in HORSE, in anything. Friendship came easy for two fierce competitors. Karain was reminded just how fierce once the sound of Fowler’s birdie rolled all the way back to the 18th tee box where they stood.
“It was chilling to me,” Karain admitted, “if it were me the ball would have gone in the bushes somewhere. Not Patrick. He’s solid.”
He’ll take that any day over popular.