CHASKA, Minn. — If Patrick Reed goes on to win 10 majors, 100 tournaments and a Nobel Prize in physics, none of those achievements are likely to be as indelible as the scintillating performance he staged on an idyllic Sunday at this 41st Ryder Cup. Sure, we’ve seen pyrotechnics from the brash, rosy-cheeked Reed in the past. Birdie barrages in Palm Springs. A bold top-five proclamation at Doral. Gallery-shushing at Gleneagles. But what Reed did in his main-event singles match against Europe’s snarling, fist-pumping alpha dog, the resurgent Rory McIlroy, will go a long way toward shaping his legacy.
That may sound hyperbolic—Reed is just 26 and undoubtedly has a long, fruitful career ahead of him—but it’s a fact. His unflinching 1-up takedown of McIlroy at glistening, rolling Hazeltine National, in front of 50,000 delirious fans, provided some of the greatest drama you’ll find this side of an Aaron Sorkin script.
The match was always going to be momentous, what with the way these two had nobly battled during the first four sessions. In the first two days, Reed had scratched out 2½ points in four starts with a mostly out-of-form partner Jordan Spieth. McIlroy, meanwhile, had racked up three points, on the back of three convincing victories with the ascendant Belgian, Thomas Pieters—in front of an off-putting number of vitriolic fans. With Reed pandering to the galleries and McIlroy goading them, the two players quickly established themselves as the emotional cores of their respective sides.
Their much-anticipated leadoff Sunday singles showdown needed all of one hole to send a charge through the already jacked-up masses. With thousands packed around the 1st green, Reed found himself in an early pinch, needing to hole a 20-footer for a par if he had any hope of scratching out a halve. When the putt dropped, Reed cried his now-signature “Come on!” The crowd produced a roar so thunderous that you’d swear the very ground below Reed’s feet might open and swallow him whole.
McIlroy scrambled for par out of a greenside bunker, and after the pair traded pars at the 2nd, McIlroy birdied the par-5 3rd to take a one-up lead. Reed promptly squared the match on the 5th hole, a drivable par-4, when he knocked his tee shot to within 15 feet and poured in the putt for eagle.
Next came a delicious scene on the green of the par-4 6th, where Reed dropped a 15-footer to match McIlroy’s birdie. Reed bowed to the gallery (a mocking homage to McIlroy), then wagged his finger, Mutombo-like, at the Irishman, who by this point had turned his back and was on his way to the next tee. The sequence was Reed in full—bold, cocky, unfettered. Those characteristics have always lurked within the Texan, but until recently he was not always comfortable showcasing them on so grand a stage.
“He’s more comfortable now being who he is, even compared to just a couple of years ago,” Kessler Karain, Reed’s caddie and brother-in-law, said by the 18th green after the match had concluded. “He’s let the animal out of the cage.”
Two holes later, at the par-3 8th, the animal emerged again, in a sequence that will go down in Ryder Cup lore. It began with McIlroy dropping a 50-footer for birdie. When the putt fell, he erupted into a fit of fist pumps. Then he raised his hand to his ear, imploring the crowd to jeer him. “I can’t hear you!” he mouthed.
Then it was Reed’s turn. A hush fell over the crowd as he sized up a hole-high 30-footer to match McIlroy. Reed took one look, a second, then rocked back his putter and did exactly what he’d done all week to the Europeans. Draino. “Come on!” he boomed. The crowd exploded. (And so did social media.) Reed wagged his finger at McIlroy, who broke into a smile, and the two exchanged fist bumps as they left the green. If you didn’t have goose bumps, you didn’t have a pulse. “Against anyone else, I might have been a couple up going into the turn,” McIlroy said later, “but I was all square and had a battle on my hands.”
As the match continued the quality of play diminished slightly but the theater did not. At the par-4 12th, Reed took his first lead of the day when McIlroy bogeyed. On the walk from the 13th green to the 14th tee, Reed crossed paths with Zach Johnson, who was strolling purposefully to the 5th tee. Through a swarm of reporters, photographers and assorted hangers-on, the players coolly nodded at one another and exchanged a fist bump.
Reed took control of the match when he ripped his second at the par-5 16th into a bunker right of the green, then knocked the ensuing sand shot to kick-in range. Chants of “U-S-A” echoed through the grandstands. When McIlroy failed to make a 4 of his own, Reed was dormie with two to play. He later praised the voluble galleries for buoying him. “It’s the first time I’ve ever played in a home crowd,” he said. “It gets you going and keeps you going. If you hit a bad shot, they pick you up so you can get out of it. If you hit a good shot, it just builds more momentum over the putts.”
As for the seemingly feisty interplay with McIlroy, Reed said it was merely “fun and games.” McIlroy said much the same: “Yes, we mocked each from time to time, but it was all in good fun. I have no problem with Patrick Reed.”
The match, which Johnny Miller called the best Ryder Cup match he’d seen since the 1991 War by the Shore, seemed destined to reach 18, and indeed it did. After both players blitzed drives up the heart of the fairway, Reed pured his approach shot on the uphill par-4 to about 12 feet past the hole; McIlroy’s effort finished roughly the same distance left of the hole. It was hard to tell who was away. With an assist from Reed, the walking referee attached a string to the flagstick, measured the distance of both balls and determined that McIlroy’s was closer “by the size of a marker.” That cleared the stage for Reed, who calmly stepped up and rolled the ball in the back of the hole for a clinching birdie.
A few hours later, Reed was sitting front and center on the dais in the U.S team press conference. He was asked if he believes he’s made for this event. Reed, a USA hat pulled low over his brow, grinned a grin that said, “Hell, yes,” but before he could answer, Dustin Johnson jumped in.
“He hates it,” Johnson deadpanned, cracking up the assembled media.
Reed loves it, of course. Feeds on it. Thrives on it. If every event was contested as match play in front of frenzied, bloodthirsty masses, Reed would rule the sport. “Any time I can wear the red, white and blue, play for our country, and it happens to be match play, it kind of all just fits in,” he said. “Any time I feel like I can go one-on-one against somebody, it’s something I love to do.”
“He’s a hero,” said Rickie Fowler.
Perhaps, but you can bet he won’t be greeted like one at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris. Which will, of course, energize him all the more.
Viva la Reed.