AUGUSTA, Ga. – You could see Patrick Reed coming for a few years, even if you didn’t know his name. Reed is damn good. He knows it and doesn’t mind saying it. It is not fair to say he acts like he invented golf. But he does act like golf was invented recently – like someone hit the restart button on golf five years ago, and everything that happened before is irrelevant.
Reed finished the first Masters round of his life by going bogey-bogey-bogey for a one-over 73, and there is a lesson there. The question is whether he wants to learn it.
He recently won at Doral and called himself one of the top-five players in the world, and now he might as well sign a big sponsorship deal with Target. Players and reporters have him in their sights. When he arrived at Augusta, he said something that was not nearly as controversial as his top-five comment, but was more telling. He was asked about playing in his first Masters, and whether he discounts experience playing at Augusta.
Reed’s response: “You know now if a guy is experienced and he’s playing as (well) as you are, he’ll probably have an edge, but at the same time, I feel like whoever is playing the best nowadays is going to win.”
The key word there is “nowadays”. It is a loaded word. It implies that back in the day, experience was important, but nowadays, players are so good that it doesn’t matter.
Here is the lesson, courtesy of fellow first-timer Jordan Spieth, who played with Reed and Rory McIlroy. Spieth was asked about experience, and this is what he said:
“You could see certain spots where Rory hit shots that looked like they were off-line, but in fact they were right where they needed to be, whereas Patrick and I were going more towards the pin. You see certain shots he hits where he knows the golf course, and we’re still learning it.”
Augusta National will almost certainly take its pound of Reed’s flesh. The course does that. That’s why this is the most riveting tournament in the game. There are so many choices, odd angles and deceiving mounds. First-time visitors inevitably make the same comment: It’s a lot hillier than it looks on television.
Golfers can’t learn to attack it until they play it – under Masters conditions, not in some college rounds, as Reed did at nearby Augusta State. Every year, the National puts golfers in their place. You don’t win the Masters until the course decides you are ready. There is a reason nobody has won in his Masters debut since Fuzzy Zoeller 35 years ago.
Reed is the exception among golfers, but he is also a product of his era. Most of today’s golfers see themselves as world-class athletes with all the perks: Not just fame and money, but muscular frames in fashionable clothes and famous, attractive women at their sides. Rory McIlroy’s fiancée, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, followed the McIlroy-Reed- Spieth threesome with her magenta-dyed hair. Tiger Woods is dating Lindsey Vonn. Dustin Johnson, who has probably been described as “athletic” more than any golfer in years, is dating pinup Paulina Gretzky, daughter of Wayne.
Everything from the outfits to the prize money to the body types screams this is a new era. It’s an era of cool, and cool does not genuflect at the past. So the conditions are right for somebody like Patrick Reed to come along and say that the game has changed and the most talented guys will win if they play well, experience be damned.
Reed is entitled to say what he wants. If he wants to be brash, that’s his prerogative, and if he wants to wear red on Sunday like his idol Tiger Woods, that is also his prerogative. (He does indeed plan to do that).
But he will discover soon that the game humbles everybody. In the past few years, it even humbled Woods. Reed will learn saying this stuff is not worth it. The game is too hard, and Augusta National is really too hard.
In Woods’ first full year on the PGA Tour, he said he won a tournament with his “C-plus” game, a moment of honesty that rankled his fellow players and probably contributed to his reticence with the media.
Woods figured out: You can think it, but don’t say it. It’s not worth it. Why make the game harder? Why stand over a tricky eight-foot putt with a tournament on the line and those comments hanging over your head? Why give people a reason to root against you?
Don’t set the bar so high that critics can remind you of it whenever you have a lousy round. The game is hard enough. Funny thing: McIlroy was asked about Reed and Spieth on Thursday, and he was his usually gracious and complimentary self. He also mentioned that while Spieth is only 20, Reed is actually 23, only one year younger than McIlroy.
Rory, of course, has won two majors already. Reed may be his chief rival someday. But the path will probably not be as short as he thinks.