- Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy headline a Masters leaderboard full of hopefuls looking for their first green jacket.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters is about a single moment. But it is also about every moment that follows, for a day or a week or a month or a lifetime. It is about the green jacket that will be draped across a man’s shoulders early Sunday evening, but also the green jacket that hangs at Augusta National in perpetuity. It is not just about the nearly $2 million that will be awarded to the winner, but to the endless opportunities that accrue in the aftermath. It is not just about winning the Masters, it is about being a Masters winner.
On Sunday afternoon, the top five men on the leaderboard—separated by seven strokes, a whisker on a Sunday in April—will be chasing their first victory at Augusta. They come at it from places as disparate as their homes on the globe: Two from the United States and one each from Northern Ireland, Spain and Sweden. They are as young as 23 and as old as 41, some famous and some nearly unknown. There are subplots as disparate as the virtual, last-pairing renewal of one of the most emotional Ryder Cup matches in recent history and a Spaniard trying to join a short but breathtaking list of countrymen to win the Masters. Some are seeking to build the foundation of a legacy, at least one, a penthouse.
There is American Patrick Reed at the top, 14-under par and three shots clear of Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy. The gifted, yet enigmatic Reed, 27, has been among the best players in the world for half a decade but has never won a major championship and has seriously contended just once, making a bogey on the 72nd hole to finish tied for second at last summer’s PGA championship. He is a prickly, shotmaking, putting genius, in need of a validating title to burnish his resume and his reputation.
He started Saturday’s round at nine-under par, with a two-shot lead on Australian Marc Leishman. Reed played in the final group, hearing the roars that accompanied McIlroy’s charge in front of him, and seeing the tangible results posted on Augusta’s huge, manual scoreboards. "I’m a guy that looks at leaderboards all the time,’’ said Reed, "whether it’s Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday.’’ When McIlroy chipped in for an eagle on the eighth hole, at 4:03 p.m., the two men were tied.
But Reed responded with three consecutive birdies at the eighth, ninth and 10th holes and then, remarkably made eagles on both famous back-nine par fives, the 13th, with a brilliant second shot and steady 10-foot put; and the 15th, with a long chip from the embankment in front of the green. He finished with a five-under par 67.
And there is McIlroy, 28, a global athletic celebrity with four major titles but still with the burden of replacing the green jacket he lost at Augusta seven years by shooting 80 in the final round, which will be remembered for a long, forlorn stroll among Augusta’s lavish "cabins’’ after a crazily errant shot. He needs a victory to complete the career grand slam. Reed and McIlroy will tee off together at 2:40 p.m. on what is expected to be a clear and cool Sunday afternoon (after a humid and rainy Saturday), and the sport will harken back to a wild Ryder Cup match 18 months ago at Hazeltine Country Club in Minnesota, when Reed scored a one-up victory in a battle of screams, fist-pumps and crowd shushes.
"It’s going to be electrifying,’’ said Reed. However: "It will be calmer,’’ he added, recalling Hazeltine. "There’s a lot of stuff you can do at the Ryder Cup that you can’t do at Augusta National.’’ (There are things you can do in church that you can’t do at Augusta National, but, moving on…).
McIlroy, who shot 65 on Saturday, said, "I think it will be slightly different. Hopefully, it’s not such a partisan—or bipartisan?—crowd. It won’t be quite as intense as that Ryder Cup match, I don’t think. I think we’ll obviously still be feeling it.’’ (There is a point worth making here: It’s true that Reed is an American and it’s also true that he helped Augusta State, right here in town, to an NCAA championship. But McIlroy is an immensely popular player and Masters crowds will surely embrace their battle with—ahem—something resembling bipartisan intensity. It’s misguided to suggest that Reed will be some sort of overwhelming crowd favorite).
As darkness fell and rain bled down on August Saturday evening, the players, volleyed a little pseudo-psychology on each other. Seven years ago, McIlroy took a four-stroke lead into the final round and melted down. "I’m not in the lead like I was that day, so I probably don’t have as much pressure,’’ he said. "Patrick has got a three-shot lead. I feel like all the pressure is on him.’’
Reed said, "I am leading. I mean, I guess so. But at the same time, he’s trying to go for the career grand slam.’’
McIlroy, minutes earlier, had noted this, like so, "Patrick is going for his first [grand slam] and I’m going for…. Something else.’’ They were 19 hours from teeing off and it was already fun.
But there is also this: On Sunday at the Masters, disruption happens. Reed and McIlroy are in the driver’s (and shotgun?) seats, but the winner could come from …. The backseat. (End of metaphor. I promise). "It’s definitely not a two-horse at this point,’’ said McIlroy. (A different metaphor!). "There’s a lot more guys.’’
There is Rickie Fowler, 29, best known to casual fans for a distinctive on-course wardrobe that has, over time, diminished in funk. Fowler is nine-under par, five shots behind Reed and two behind McIlroy. He has won four PGA tournaments and more than $30 million and has eight top-10 finished in majors, including a fifth-place finish at the Masters in 2014. A year ago he played in the penultimate final-round pairing at Augusta with Jordan Spieth, but fell to 11th place with an ugly 76. He shot 65 on Saturday, his first-ever round at Augusta with no bogeys. "Still a lot of work to be done, still a lot of golf to be played,’’ said Fowler Saturday evening, effectively parrying premature talk of a green jacket. But perhaps it is his time.
There is John Rahm, a 23-year-old Spaniard who played college golf at Arizona State. Rahm shot 75 in the opening round, 55th place; nobody has won a Masters from such a distant Thursday finish. But on Saturday, like Fowler and McIlroy, Rahm shot 65 in weather than included several downpours. He is eight-under, six off the lead. A year ago, Sergio Garcia, also—and famously—from Spain, won here. Seve Ballesteros and Jose-Maria Olazabal before that. It is deep tradition that Rahm acknowledged after his round. He was asked a question about the late Ballesteros’s mastery and after agreeing—"He was doing unimaginable things, the way Tiger did when he first won here."—he dropped Garcia’s name, Miguel-Angel Jimenez’s and Ramon Sota’s.
"I’m just trying to follow the leader,’’ said Rahm. "Get on the train at some point in my career.’’ Perhaps it is his time, ahead of schedule.
And there is Stenson, an old man at 41. He shot a quiet 70 while enduring the McIlroy maelstrom, and sits at seven-under, seven off the lead, a shot behind Rahm. Stenson has played 12 Masters, and never finished better than a two for 14th. Perhaps it is his time. "If everything goes my way, possibly, but not really.’’ Okay. Never mind.
Even behind this group, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson has six-under par, a daunting eight shots behind Reed. But he has played each round better than the last: 73-69-68. And a shot behind him is Spieth, still in pursuit of a second jacket to hang alongside the one he won in 2015. He is tied with his good friend and spring break buddy, Justin Thomas, at five-under par, nine shots in arrears. It will take a certain measure of leaderboard chaos and disruption, and a very low score, to vault either of them to the top.
But Sunday at Augusta looms. Nothing is promised. Everything is earned.