AUGUSTA, Ga. — They have so little in common, other than they’re both chasing greatness. One grew up in Northern Ireland and launches his driver like it’s a bazooka. The other was raised in Texas and wields his putter like it’s his Excalibur. One is a front-runner, the other a magician. They are friendly but not exactly friends. They are, by almost every measure, the two most important and accomplished players of their generation.
Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth both had a chance on Sunday to win the Masters, the tournament they each covet the most, and neither did. They had to watch as Patrick Reed — a man who can’t quite match their talent but makes up for it in bravado — went home wearing green.
But the way each of them pursued Reed throughout the day says a lot about their respective relationship with Augusta National. Each has been haunted by a final collapse here; McIlroy in 2011, Spieth in 2016. But Spieth’s 64 on Sunday felt like an exorcism, as he mounted a thrilling charge that no one saw coming. McIlroy’s 74 looked like exactly the opposite, a reminder that he seems destined to be tormented by this place.
It’s as though this course, and this tournament, was meant to juxtapose their strengths and weaknesses. As one man rose to the moment, the other wilted. The fact that neither of them left victorious will soon be forgotten, but what will likely linger for years to come is this:
Spieth is convinced he’s going to win a bunch of these.
McIlroy has to be questioning if he’ll even win one.
“I almost pulled off the impossible,” Spieth said.
“I just didn’t quite have it today,” McIlroy said.
At Sunday’s outset, it felt like there was a real chance this tournament was going to be McIlroy’s coronation. He had been focusing on the Masters for his entire offseason, obsessing over its subtleties, tweaking his game in preparation. Even though a win would make him just the sixth golfer to complete the career Grand Slam, the return of Tiger Woods gave him a chance to fly under the radar, deflecting some of the pressure and attention that has dogged him in recent years. After three rounds, he was only three strokes back. All the pressure, McIlroy insisted, was on Reed.
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Patrick Reed doesn’t care what you think, he’s the Masters champion
Rory McIlroy tried mind games. Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth pushed their opponent to the breaking point. Even fans were against the local leader. But Patrick Reed brushed them all aside to win his first major, at Augusta no less.
On the second hole, McIlroy hit a booming drive down the left side of the fairway, at least 50 yards ahead of Reed’s ball. He followed it by shaping a towering iron toward the flag, leaving him just five feet left for eagle. Reed, after a nervous bogey at the first hole, looked rattled. A make would have pulled McIlroy into a tie for the lead. He missed. His shoulders slumped in disappointment, even as he tapped in for birdie. A theme for the day was taking shape.
“I feel like momentum is a huge thing, especially in final rounds,” McIlroy said. “You look at what Jordan and Rickie [Fowler] did. They got on a roll, and I didn’t.”
Up ahead, having teed off 40 minutes prior to the leaders, Spieth was stringing together what seemed, in the moment, like meaningless birdies. He began the day nine strokes behind Reed. No was thinking about him climbing the leaderboard, not even Spieth. He told himself he wasn’t going to look at where he stood the entire day. Even as the roars grew louder and began echoing off the pines, he refused to look.
“The first time I saw the leaderboard was after I tapped in on 18,” Spieth said. “Honest to God. When I finished, I could have been in the lead by two or been down by four. And neither one would have surprised me.”
There were moments, though, when Spieth sensed something special was unfolding. When he came to the 12th hole, the place where he had thrown away the 2016 Masters with two shots in the water, it was deathly quiet. He hit a beautiful 9-iron that landed softly on the back of the green. When it came to rest, he raised both arms in the air, a mixture of celebration and relief. He high-fived caddie Michael Greller with gusto, then walked across the Hogan Bridge and rolled in the putt. Though he had no idea, he was suddenly within three shots of Reed.
“Probably the most pressure-packed shot I’ve ever hit,” Spieth said. “I know what I’ve done, and my history there. To stand in that kind of pressure and hit the shot to the safe zone to knock that putt in was massive for me.”
Four holes behind, McIlroy was going in the opposite direction. His drive on the par-5 eighth hole was so far to the right, he had to punch out and ended up making bogey, one of only two bogeys on that hole the entire day. On a day when the greens were soft and players around him were lighting the leaderboard on fire, McIlroy hit only eight greens in regulation. Only four players in the field posted a score worse than his 74. By the time Spieth birdied the 12th, McIlroy wasn’t even holding on to second place.
“It’s frustrating,” McIlroy said. “It’s hard to take any positives right now, but at least I put myself in the position.”
Back on 13, the drama was building. Spieth’s drive came to rest just on the edge of the pine straw off the right side of the fairway, leaving him with an agonizing decision. Hit 4-iron or hybrid? Greller recommended hybrid. “I just think it fits the shape of the hole better, and gives you more margin,” Greller told Spieth. It was time to rise to the moment. The course record of 63, and the greatest final round in the history of majors, suddenly felt like it was in play.
Spieth gripped his hybrid, wiggled his feet, took one final look at the hole and hit a laser over Rae’s Creek. The ball came to rest 12 feet from the pin. He couldn’t quite coax in the eagle putt, but when he tapped in for birdie, he reminded himself not to look at the leaderboard.
“Don’t worry about the tournament at all,” Spieth said. “Even when I got to 6-under, 7-under, 8-under, 9-under, I still didn’t care. It was working for me, so there was no reason to change anything up.”
There was still one more magical Spieth moment yet to come. His shot into the par-3 16th was short and left him a difficult 30-footer. To make it, he’d have to putt the ball at least a foot outside the cup and let it trickle toward the hole while still being mindful of not running it well past if he missed. When it rolled in, it produced the biggest roar of the week, one it felt like half the course could hear. Spieth turned to Greller in mock surprise. “Are you kidding me?” he said, shouting above the din.
And yet, it was not quite meant to be. On the 18th hole, needing one more birdie to shoot 62, Spieth’s drive clipped the lone branch that looms high over the fairway, and his ball fell to earth some 270 yards from the green. He made bogey, and the spell was broken.
“To be able to have a chance to win this tournament five years from now is really, really cool,” Spieth said. “And that’s how I’m going to take today.”
As Spieth went to change his clothes, he hugged his friends and family, and he couldn’t help but notice one of his friends was holding a cocktail.
“How do I get one of those?” he said.
“I’ll have one for you when we get to the car,” said Annie Verret, Spieth’s fiancée.
One of the lesser-known truths at Augusta National is that the most deflating walk here isn’t up the 18th fairway when you’ve lost a chance to win a green jacket. It’s to the parking lot, once the tournament is over. Much like there is a Champions Locker Room, where only previous winners are allowed entry, there is also a Champions Parking Lot, right next to the clubhouse. If you have a green jacket, you can park there. If you don’t, you have to climb aboard a golf cart and be shuttled to an auxiliary parking lot, somewhere in the distance.
As twilight settled in, several past champions sauntered toward their cars. Nick Faldo and Craig Stadler walked gingerly toward their Mercedes SUVs. Sergio Garcia also came through, carefully toting his newborn daughter, Azalea, in a car seat. Even Danny Willett pulled up close so his friends could climb into his car.
McIlroy’s agent, Sean O’Flaherty, eventually emerged from the locker room and flagged down a golf cart. “Is it OK if I get his car and bring it here?” O’Flaherty asked, climbing aboard. The driver nodded. On this day, no one wanted McIlroy to suffer any further.