If Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed had gone head-to-head in match play on Saturday afternoon at Augusta National, it would have been a thrilling display.
The Irishman would have led for all but three holes, been matched at all-square through 15, and ultimately have beaten the American 2-up.
You say that doesn’t mean anything when they’re competing in the Masters, in stroke play, for a major championship?
It does for these guys.
McIlroy and Reed will be inextricably linked for the rest of their golf careers by the incredible Ryder Cup singles match they played at Hazeltine in Minnesota in 2016.
In a scintillating four-hole stretch, McIlroy made four birdies and lost ground to Reed, who threw in an eagle on him. Few duels in Ryder Cup history produced more Monday morning sore throats from the roars than that one, with Reed eventually prevailing 1-up in the Americans’ triumph.
On Sunday at Augusta, where the sound reverberates loudly through the pines, the two men will face each other again in the final pairing of the 82nd Masters.
With a three-under-par 69 that included two eagles on the back nine Saturday, Reed holds a three-shot lead over McIlroy, who gained on him with one of three 65s shot on a day when the course was soft and vulnerable because of intermittent rain.
Predictably, both players downplayed the notion that this is any sort of match play, but the circumstances say otherwise.
Rickie Fowler and John Rahm, like Reed seeking a first major, are five and six strokes, respectively, behind the leader, and would basically have to duplicate the 65s they scored in the third round to catch Reed.
Consider: 22 of the last 27 Masters champions have come from the final pairing.
No, this is all about Reed vs. McIlroy, and each sought Saturday night to subtly put the pressure on the other.
Recognizing how that might stoke the fire in an already combustible Reed, McIlroy backed down from that a few minutes later and said, “Patrick has a three-shot lead. I feel like all the pressure is on him. 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.”
Reading between the lines: McIlroy, 28, is making the point that he’s won four majors and 21 titles on the PGA and European tours. Reed, 27, has five wins and a single top-10 finish in majors.
Told that McIlroy said the heat was mostly on him, Reed shrugged and countered with a smile, “I’m leading. I mean, I guess so. But at the same time, he’s trying to go for the career Grand Slam. You can put it either way.
“Honestly, I woke up this morning, felt fine. Didn’t feel any pressure. Just came out and tried to play some golf.”
McIlroy drew laughs in his news conference when he said, “Patrick is going for his first and I’m going for something else.”
He wouldn’t say it, but with trophies from the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, McIlroy can become the sixth man in history to achieve the career Grand Slam with a Masters victory.
It was a green jacket that could have been his first major prize if he had not blown a four-shot lead with an 80 on Sunday in 2011.
In a stunningly quick recovery from that debacle, McIlroy notched a runaway victory in the U.S. Open two months later. He captured the PGA the year after that, and in 2014 won back-to-back majors in the British Open and PGA.
“I’ve been waiting for this chance, to be honest,” McIlroy said. “I always have said that 2011 was a huge turning point in my career. It was the day that I realized I wasn’t ready to win major championships, and I needed to reflect on that and realize what I needed to do differently.
“But now I’m ready. I learned a lot from it. I’m not in the lead like I was going into that day, so I probably don’t have as much pressure. I don’t have to protect anything. I can go out and free-wheel like I did today, which is a great position to be in.”
Reed has played phenomenally in becoming the first player since Lee Westwood in 2010 to open the Masters with three rounds in the 60s (69-66-67). Westwood didn’t win that year because Phil Mickelson shot three 67s in the tournament and beat him by three.
Reed has played the par-fives in 13 under, a statistic that was boosted Saturday when he made eagles from 14 feet at the 13th and with a chip-in at 15. He also is leading the field in strokes gained putting.
When McIlroy tied Reed with his eagle at the eighth, Reed stepped on the accelerator with birdies at eight (from nine feet), nine (25 feet) and 10 (nine feet).
He credits his Ryder Cup experience with some of that.
“If I hit that one shot, I can pump myself up and try to get going and try to flip the switch,” he said.”
On that Ryder Cup Sunday at Hazeltine, the massive crowd was decidedly rowdy and partisan in backing the Americans. The most memorable moment was when McIlroy drained a 40-footer for birdie, put his hands to his ears and bellowed, “I can’t hear you!”
Reed then topped him with a 25-foot birdie, wagging his finger at McIroy”
They clapped each other on the back leaving the hole, realizing in the moment how special it was.
Though Sunday’s atmosphere will be charged with anticipation, the roars will come after the shots fall.
“It will be calmer,” Reed said with a smile. “There’s a lot of stuff you can do at the Ryder Cup that you can’t do at Augusta National.”