KAPALUA, Hawaii – Sports, and by association golf, is always best when served with a dollop of rivalry.
Ali had Frazier, McEnroe had Borg, Johnny Manziel has whoever that Billy Football guy was in Las Vegas, and it seems, at least at selected outlets, Jordan Spieth has Patrick Reed.
It’s a peculiar relationship. The Texas-born golden child who has engaged fans from Des Moines to Dallas and the Texas-born iconoclast who has a tendency to turn a phrase down the wrong path.
Although it’s easy to shoehorn characters as heroes and villains, when it comes to Spieth and Reed it would be a wild generalization and patently wrong.
Each player is far more nuanced than that, but the duo’s increasingly frequent bouts between the ropes are becoming something of a blueprint for a rivalry.
Reed clipped Spieth in a playoff in 2013 at the Wyndham Championship, Spieth returned the favor in extra frames last year at the Valspar Championship, and on Thursday at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions the tandem traded punches on their way to the top two spots on the leaderboard, with Reed clipping the world No. 1 with an eagle at the last for a 65.
“He got me when I think I may have deserved it on the last hole of the Wyndham. Kind of left an itch on me to want to get that tournament back in the Valspar,” said Spieth, who is poised a shot behind Reed at 7 under.
“Any time Patrick loses in a head-to-head format, you're not going to see somebody that's that upset for a very long time. He hates it. I mean he hates losing in a match-play situation.”
The dichotomy of Spieth and Reed is straight out of central casting. While Spieth enjoys the role of fresh-faced and outgoing champion, Reed is more guarded in interviews and recedes into a competitive cocoon and the safety of clichés.
Spieth once declined to talk about how humble he was in an interview because, well, that wouldn’t be humble; while Reed raised eyebrows at the 2014 WGC-Cadillac Championship when he proclaimed himself a top-5 player despite an actualranking that hovered closer to 40th.
Spieth dotes over his family, spending the week before this championship frolicking in the Pacific Ocean with his sister; while Reed is estranged from his parents.
Spieth is a media darling with his likeness littered about Kapalua this week, while Reed – the defending champion in Maui – has gone largely unnoticed.
For all the differences, however, the two have created a unique, mutually beneficial bond over their relatively short careers.
The duo went undefeated teamed together in four-ball play at the 2014 Ryder Cup and added a foursomes victory at last year’s Presidents Cup to their collective resume.
“For whatever reason it is, whether we want to feed off each other or we want to beat the crap out of each other, we somehow play well together,” Spieth said. “We still want to outdo each other even when we're teammates in a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup. So it's a good pairing.”
Although not as effusive as Spieth, Reed seemed to acknowledge a connection born largely from competitive necessity. Simply put, for Reed to reach that goal of being a top-5 player - he’s currently 10th - the most direct route would be through Spieth.
“Any time I play with Jordan we always have a good time and we seemed to play pretty solid with each other,” said Reed, who will head out paired with Spieth for the second consecutive day on Friday. “So, just another day to go out and play some golf with a friend and we went out and played some fun golf.”
There are others who would more easily qualify as Spieth’s rivals in the current golf landscape.
Jason Day pushed him during last year’s FedEx Cup playoffs – giving players, however briefly, a reason to reconsider rubberstamping that Player of the Year ballot with Spieth’s name – and world No. 3 Rory McIlroy seems poised to reclaim the top spot in the world after being slowed by injury in 2015.
All three players, however, seem forged from the same mold. While there is no lack of competitiveness among the threesome, they share an easy likability that dulls the leading edge of any real rivalry.
They will battle on the course for titles and break bread at night recounting the round. Yet, be it real or perceived, for Spieth and Reed there is only grudging respect.
“I guess each time we're together we almost feel like we're playing each other in a match,” Spieth said. “Maybe he doesn't, but that's what I think of it, that's why I think we play well together. We certainly want each other to play well, to push ourselves, [but] I don't like losing to him in a round when I play with him.”
And that, by definition, is the central ingredient of any good rivalry.