AUGUSTA, Georgia — There is a serene perfection to Augusta National Golf Club and to the Masters tournament that it hosts—and which the sport adores—that is both beautiful and distant. There is no running, there is no litter and there are no cell phones. It is a place that bows forever to a worshipful past, whose former champions are manifestly, if not always accurately, remembered as Capital-G Gentlemen of dignity and honor, their green jackets hung for all eternity, as if they are vestments. There is no room for quasi-moral ambiguity at Augusta, except when the scoreboard demands it. On Sunday evening, the scoreboard demanded it.
It was a day when cool, gentle winds wafted across the ground, reminiscent of autumn football weather someplace far to the north, but which was reserved for round four of the first major of 2018. It was a day when three potential champions struck from Masters central casting, each with rich narratives and backstories ready-made for enshrinement at Augusta, threw themselves at history. It was a day when Patrick Reed, a brilliant player with a past that makes a sometimes stuffy, country club sport uncomfortable, repelled them all and won the Masters. He is 27 years old, and now he owns his first green jacket, his first major championship and a fresh start at gaining the embrace of his game.
He won by taking a two-shot lead in Friday’s windy second round, by extending it to three shots in the rain on Saturday and then by shooting an uneven, one-under par 71 in the final round to keep the victory from slipping away. He finished at 15 under par, one stroke in front of Rickie Fowler, a generational golf peer; and two strokes in front of Jordan Spieth, another. It was a legacy-establishing win. A green jacket was slipped over his shoulders, first on television, and then on the hillside above the 18th green. "I think this is a [size] 44," said Reed in his victor’s press conference. "The one that fits."
Reed won on a strange afternoon when three players each had chances to take him down: First playing partner (and Ryder Cup rival) Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who stuck a sharp psychological needle into Reed’s head on Saturday when he said, "Patrick has got a three-shot lead; I think all the pressure is on him." Second came Spieth of the U.S., who started Sunday nine shots behind Reed and at one point got himself into share of the lead before falling short. And finally came Fowler, chasing his first major like Reed, who started five shots back and, with a rare and sensational birdie on the 72nd hole, forced Reed to par that same hole to secure his win.
He did just that. At 6:23 p.m., with gorgeous spring sunlight slanting across the grounds, Fowler hit his approach stiff on the devilish, uphill par-four 18th hole. There was a roar, the type that makes Sunday competition at Augusta unique. Reed always knows where he stands. "I always watch leaderboards," he said, "whether it’s the first hole on Thursday or the last hole on Sunday." He was standing on the 17th green, 50 or more feet from the hole, leading Fowler by two shots, when the sound exploded into the April air. "I just knew it had to be Rickie," said Reed. "Because you know, to win your first major is never going to be easy."
Just 20 seconds after Fowler’s birdie on the 18th, Reed, who plays with a placid urgency, sent his long birdie putt scurrying across the side of an embankment in the middle of the green. The putt narrowly missed hitting the flagstick and dipped slightly into the right side of the hole before squeezing out the back of the cup and stopping five feet beyond it. Wasting little time, Reed drilled home to stay a shot in front of Fowler and two in front of Spieth. He stood on the 18th tee in his pink shirt—mandated by sponsor Nike, to match the dying Augusta azaleas, instead of the Sunday red that Reed prefers, in homage to Tiger Woods—needing a par to win the Masters.
And he finished off his win with a clean drive to the left side of the 18th fairway, an approach to 15 feet behind the hole, a treacherous downhill birdie putt that rolled an uncomfortable three feet past, and then a brave comeback. There was a cheer when the winning stroke dropped into the cup, but there was absolutely not a roar. There is no instrument to precisely separate these two sounds, but the difference is obvious. There is a reason for this, that cuts to the slippery definition of likeability. First, a very brief primer:
There is nobody in the wide world of golf who questions Reed’s talent and genius on a golf course. There are other parts of his curriculum vitae that make the barons of golf cringe (and not undeservedly). Much of Reed’s past was minutely cataloged in a 2015 Sports Illustrated story by Alan Shipnuck. The short list: A Texan by birth, Reed was kicked off the golf team at the University of Georgia in 2010. Shipnuck wrote, "An arrest for underage drinking and possession of a fake I.D. hastened his departure." (He later played for Augusta State, here in town, on two NCAA championship teams). After a 2013 playoff win over Spieth, he called himself "a top-five player" in the world, which many viewed as too cocky. In November of 2014, he expressed anger at himself by shouting a homophobic word that was caught by a live microphone. And he is also estranged from his parents and sister, and, according to Shipnuck’s story, they were not invited to Reed’s wedding in 2012 and were escorted from the grounds of Pinehurst during the 2014 U.S. Open, at the request of Reed’s wife, Justine.
It is a somewhat messy résumé, although hardly felonious. After yesterday’s win Reed was asked whether he regretted the top-five comment.
"Well, I mean, honestly," said Reed. "I don’t ever regret anything I really say." (And let’s be honest: He just won the Masters). He was asked, at the press conference, by Shipnuck, if it was bittersweet to not share his Masters win with his parents and sister. He responded, poker-faced: "I mean, I’m just out here to play golf and try to win golf tournaments."
It seemed that much of the gallery at Augusta was versed well enough in the controversial aspects of Reed’s story that they do not embrace him fully. Or at all. This is partly a golf thing and partly an Augusta thing. If Augusta is a church, Reed is the mischievous little boy in the back, putting food coloring in the Holy Water. And it shows.
For example: On the first tee, McIlroy was introduced first and got a boisterous reception, with fans screaming his name: Ror-eeee! Reed got applause. Reed says he chose to turn that in his favor. "I walked up to the first tee and had a really welcoming cheer from the fans," said Reed. "But then when Rory walked up to the tee, you know, his cheer was a little louder. 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 onto him.’’ (Maybe there is something to this: McIlroy, still looking for the career grand slam and the Masters win that he gave away with a fourth-round 80 in 2011, shot a sloppy 74 and finished tied for fifth. "It’s hard to take any positives from it right now," said McIlroy after his round.).
Another example: As Reed stood in the fairway on the ninth hole, a roar blew up from the pines far behind him, Spieth making a birdie on the 12th hole to get within three shots of Reed. Seconds later, Reed hit his approach into the ninth green, which fell short and trickled back on the slick hillside in front of the green. Fans were dignified enough to not cheer Reed’s miss, but they did not groan, either. Their feelings were obvious. Reed was asked about his lack of popularity, but answered only about McIlroy. "A lot of people were wanting him to get that career Grand Slam," said Reed. And as for his mindset in the face of less than adulation: "I just kind of went out there and just tried to play golf the best I could and tried to stay in the moment and not worry about everything else."
(Lowell Taub of CAA, who has been Reed’s agent since the 2016 Ryder Cup, said there are no plans to remake Reed’s image. "We’re going to work with Patrick like he is," said Taub, who also managed skier Bode Miller, and manages gold-medal snowboarder Chloe Kim, among many others. "I like having a guy with a little vigor and personality.")
Clearly, Reed did not let the emotions of the day cost him a jacket. Spieth made the first serious run, and a long-birdied putt at the 16th hole moved him into a tie at 14 under. Fifteen minutes later, Spieth narrowly missed a birdie putt on the 17th hole and Reed made one at the 14th hole to take a one-shot lead. On the reachable, par-five 13th hole, Reed had left a seven-iron short, and on the embankment. Many shots in that position roll back into the water that guards the front of the green, but that ground had been softened by Saturday’s rain. Reed’s stayed up, and he salvaged a pair. On the also-reachable 15th, Reed laid up and made a safe surviving par. Three more pars later, he wore green.
His victory will briefly bruise the delicate epidermis of golf. But golf will recover. Reed will change, or he will not change. He is perhaps not the archetypal Masters winner. But he is inarguably deserving. The scoreboard understands best.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the tournament from which Reed's family was escorted from the grounds. It was the 2014 U.S. Open, not the 2013 Masters.