- Rory McIlroy is three strokes behind Patrick Reed and two shots ahead of everybody else at the Masters. And yes, we now get a reprise of the most memorable match from the 2016 Ryder Cup, the singles showdown between McIlroy and Reed.
AUGUSTA, Ga. – There is one man standing between Rory McIlroy and the career grand slam. McIlroy might tell you otherwise. He might say, as he did more than once Saturday, that this Masters is “not a two-horse race” between him and leader Patrick Reed; that a lot of players can win here Sunday. But the most telling words to spill out of McIlroy’s mouth did not come in his post-round press conference. They came as McIlroy walked down the 14th fairway.
He turned to caddie Harry Diamond and said: “Let’s try to get to 12 under here.”
Twelve under? McIlroy was nine under at the time. He had one great scoring opportunity left, the par-5 15th. It was Saturday. The only reason to think about getting to 12 under was that Reed was a hole behind him, looking like he needed a tailor to measure him for his green jacket, and McIlroy knew he was already running out of time.
Reed eagled the 13th hole to get to 13 under. Then he holed a chip on the 15th to get to 15 under. McIlroy prefers not to look at leaderboards, but he saw them Saturday, and he heard the roars. McIlroy knew what Reed was doing. He responded, too: With a birdie on the 15th, and another at the last, to move to 11 under par.
Now McIlroy, who is 11 under, is three strokes behind Reed’s 14 under par and two shots ahead of everybody else at the Masters. And yes, we now get a reprise of the most memorable match from the 2016 Ryder Cup, the singles showdown between McIlroy and Reed. The atmosphere will be different, of course. As Reed said, “There’s a lot of stuff that you can do at a Ryder Cup that you can’t do at Augusta National.” One of those things, I presume, is ringing a bell on the first tee, like they do at boxing title fights. This is the only reason I am leaving my bell home.
McIlroy needed a magnificent round to get closer to Reed, and he delivered one, except for a brief interlude when he went gardening. This was on No. 13. It had been a damp, but mostly pleasant day—the course was soft but there was not much wind, which is why scores were low. But then the rain started coming down, harder than it had all day, harder than it probably looked on television, and harder than McIlroy would have liked.
He did what most of us have done in that situation. He rushed. McIlroy had put his tee shot in perfect position (he likes to go over the trees on the left so he can easily go for the green in two), but he yanked his approach. It ended up far left of the green, beyond the bunkers that surround it, and in the azaleas. McIlroy said he was lucky just to find the ball. Hitting it would be another matter entirely.
He said it helped that azaleas are thinner toward the ground than they are at the top. He slapped his ball down to a swale short of the green, then got up and down to save par. When McIlroy signed his scorecard, it did not feature a single bogey. And then he moved on to another game—this one psychological.
“Patrick has got a three-shot lead,” he said. “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.”
And: “This isn’t my first time in this position now. I’ve been able to close the deal a few times before this, and I have that to fall back on tomorrow.”
Reed, of course, hasn’t closed the deal before. Reed also watches a lot of golf on TV, and he said this week that he was watching the Masters when he wasn’t on the course. It’s reasonable to expect these words to get back to Reed.
McIlroy knows as well as anybody that Reed’s lead, which reached five shots at one point late Saturday, can vanish quickly. In 2011, McIlroy led going into the final round here. He shot 80. His tee shot on the 10th hole that day was so far from where he wanted to hit it, McIlroy was in danger of getting arrested for trespassing.
It was a classic pressure-induced Masters collapse. McIlroy said Saturday that his final round in 2011 “was the day that I realized I wasn’t ready to win major championships.”
He recovered quickly. Two months later, McIlroy won the U.S. Open. He has now won four majors, and 2011 seems like a lifetime ago.
When Reed was asked about McIlroy saying the pressure was on him, Reed gave a mini-shrug and said, “I am leading. I mean, I guess so. But at the same time, he’s trying to go for the career Grand Slam.”
In other words: Reed knows exactly what McIlroy is doing. And he isn’t fazed by it at all. Heck, when the rain got heavier Saturday, Reed used his 2016 Ryder Cup umbrella. The weather should be clear Sunday, but Reed should break out the umbrella anyway, just to remind McIlroy that Reed won their match and the U.S. won the Ryder Cup.
When McIlroy is playing well—and lately, he has played exceptionally well—he struts down the fairways with a cool confidence, as if to say: Why, yes, those are my biceps, thanks for noticing. Reed always looks like there is a cheeseburger riding on this round and he expects to be the one who eats it. Different styles, but the same root cause: extreme self-confidence.
Reed will be watching the leaderboards Sunday. He always does. McIlroy said he won’t obsess over them. He will have a score in mind and he will try to shoot it. But it shouldn’t surprise anybody if the leaderboards become superfluous anyway, and we end up with McIlroy-Reed II, this time for the green jacket.