AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy famously tormented the Hazeltine National masses during the 2016 Ryder Cup, challenging the partisan crowd with roars of “I can’t hear you!” Patrick Reed responded with the game’s most memorable finger wag.
Prepare for more of that type of histrionics on Sunday at the Masters thanks to one of the most frenzied days in tournament history.
The stage will be Reed’s when the final pairing sets out for the last lap around Augusta National thanks to the type of charge that turns solid rounds into stories that get retold every April. But McIlroy will be the most compelling supporting character the game has seen for decades.
If Saturday’s give and take between the two was any indication, it will be every bit as entertaining as the epic singles duel between the two at the ’16 Ryder Cup.
The Augusta fireworks began when McIlroy hit an aggressive chip from 28 yards right of the eighth green that had more pace than he would have liked, but the ball crashed into the flagstick and dropped into the hole for an eagle to move him into a share of the lead.
Playing a hole behind the plucky Northern Irishman, Reed heard the reaction.
“I mean, of course, I heard the roar on 8,” Reed conceded.
Not to be outdone, the player who is often described as America’s bulldog chipped in for eagle at the 15th hole from 27 yards to extend his advantage to five strokes.
McIlroy also heard.
“Yeah, I heard it. I think I was on 17 tee at that point and I saw that he went to 15 [under],” McIlroy said.
It won’t exactly be a singles match on Sunday, but it’ll be close.
Despite a bogey at the 16th hole to slow his momentum, Reed closed with a 67 and is on the verge of becoming the first player to post four rounds in the 60s at the Masters.
For those who reveled in the festivities on Day 3, it will be Reed’s eagles at Nos. 13 and 15 or his three consecutive birdies that started at No. 8 that fill up the highlight reel. But for those looking for something deeper to suggest the 27-year-old is finally ready for his major breakthrough, it could have come on the 14th hole when he calmly two-putted from 95 feet like he’d been shot full of Ritalin, no nerves, no signs of the slightest crack, no stress.
But it was a Saturday, and tensions have a tendency to climb in relation to how close a player gets to the finish line, particularly at a major championship that’s defined by late-inning pressure.
As well as Reed has performed in the Ryder and Presidents Cups for the U.S. side, his record on the Grand Slam stage has not reached the same heights.
In 16 major starts he has just a single top-10 finish, albeit at last year’s PGA Championship (T-2), and he’s never finished inside the top 20 at the Masters. Nor has he been particularly prolific since that epic duel at Hazeltine National, going winless on Tour the last year and a half.
“It’s probably one of the best matches we ever played. It was probably also one of the most exhausting matches we ever played,” Reed explained.
Perhaps Reed has emerged from that post-Ryder Cup haze, but there’s more recent history to suggest that his three-stroke advantage – and he’s five clear of any player not named McIlroy – isn’t as safe as it might appear.
Just last month at the Valspar Championship he stepped to the 72nd tee needing a birdie to win. His approach shot came up short and he failed to clear a hill with his third on his way to a bogey.
This week he’s embraced a more basic approach. Instead of allowing the pressure that’s inherent to major championships to consume him he opted for a more workman-like approach.
“You don’t need to put four perfect rounds together to win out here, especially at majors,” Reed said. “You can put four decent rounds, and if you are playing well, you have a good chance come Sunday.”
It was a lesson McIlroy learned in 2011 at this course when he turned a four-stroke, 54-hole lead into a woeful tie for 15th place after a closing 80.
“I always have said that 2011 was a huge turning point in my career,” said McIlroy, who shot a 65 to move to within three strokes of Reed. “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.”
Although both will relish the chance to rekindle that Ryder Cup bout, Sunday will not be the same. Missing will be the partisan, and often over-served, crowds that made Hazeltine such a raucous environment. Gone will be the team colors that both savor.
There will also be a few other interested players who may have a say in the final outcome.
Rickie Fowler matched McIlroy for round of the day with a 65 that included an eagle at the second and birdies on two of his final four holes to move to 9 under, and Jon Rahm, who in his second start at the Masters looks like he has the savvy of a Spanish veteran, added his own 65 and was at 8 under.
“It’s definitely not a two-horse race at this point,” McIlroy said. “There’s a lot more guys.”
No, this won’t be the same as Hazeltine. This has the potential to be better, given the setting, Augusta National’s storied closing nine that has produced so many memorable moments, and two players with the type of history that’s only born from a relationship that has been forged on the competitive edge.
It was here back in 2014 when McIlroy slung the first arrow after Reed had confidently dubbed himself after his victory at Doral a “top-5 player.” The two were to be paired together, along with Jordan Spieth, for Rounds 1 and 2 when McIlroy was asked about the threesome.
“Yeah, there’s going to be no top-5 players in that group,” McIlroy smiled wily.
A victory won’t move Reed into that coveted top-5 neighborhood, but it promises to be the type of duel the world will hear.