CHASKA, Minn. – As they approached the eighth green at Hazeltine on a gorgeous and intoxicating Sunday, Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy had already taken golf to someplace new. People will argue, of course, if this new place is some place higher or baser, but such arguments are beside the point. Whether it’s the landing of the Beatles, the invention of the Internet, or the launching of Pokemon Go, progress doesn’t slow for judgment calls.
They had played brilliant golf, both of them. No, it was more than that. They had played irresistible golf. All week here at the Ryder Cup, you could not take your eyes off either one. There was Reed, the outsider, the loner, rising to the moment, making dramatic and dazzling shots and then holding out both fists and shaking with joy and rage and power and whatever else pulsated inside him. He was a human jackhammer.
“Let’s goooooooo!” he screamed with everything he had, and the enormous gallery of golf fans went with him into a fervor of American elation and “U-S-A chants.”
“Something happens to me when I wear the red, white and blue,” Reed said.
Then there was McIlroy, the nice kid, the happy golfer, discarding all that and unleashing the warrior part of himself. He hit shots and made putts that boggled the mind. The crowd tried to stop him, tried to break his concentration with well-timed roars and jeers and, occasionally, a low blow.
“Sweet Caroline, Woe! Woe! Woe!” they serenaded him, a reminder of his sudden and public breakup with the tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
“Good times never seemed so good!” McIlroy sang back at them, a reminder that he was kicking American ass all over the golf course. McIlroy teetered between actual rage at over-the-line behavior by some fans (“I was embarrassed to be an American,” was a reporter’s prelude to the first post-Ryder Cup question to McIlroy) and a much cheerier sort of pro-wrestling rage where the shriekers and the subject of their shrieks understand that it is all in good fun. Either way, McIlroy was afire.
A Ryder Cup clash between Reed and McIlroy was inevitable. Everyone could feel that.
In a strange way, their clash has been inevitable for almost 20 years. McIlroy was just about to turn 8 and Reed was closing in on 7 when Tiger Woods shook golf to its core with his overwhelming win at the 1997 Masters. Woods, too, was something new, a cocky and breathtaking artist who made golf three-dimensional. Tens of millions of people around the world who had never watched golf in their lives watched Tiger because he was ice cool, and he was boiling hot, and he could summon brilliance from inside himself seemingly whenever he needed it. He did not play quiet golf. He pumped his fist. He slammed his club. He screamed at the injustice of a putt breaking the wrong way. He twirled his club in the ultimate flourish when he hit it flush.
Woods did not hide the turbulence that thundered inside him. He was not interested in holding back the passions that roused him. He had come to win. And he did win, again and again.
Woods was an overwhelming presence in the lives of Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed. They lived across an ocean from each other, but they both wanted to be Tiger. Reed wore red when he first came out on tour just like Tiger did on Sundays. McIlroy talked often about those sluggish days when he did not feel much like working at his game, but he worked just the same because you didn’t become Tiger Woods by taking days off. There was so much talk during Woods’ dominance of his impact on the golf world. What would the generation that grew up on Tiger Woods look like?
Well: They would look like Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed.
Sunday morning, McIlroy and Reed played the first singles match of the day. There were swirling opinions that the matchup must have been a quiet arrangement between Ryder Cup captains Davis Love and Darren Clarke. After all, EVERYONE wanted to see Patrick vs. Rory. But the captains really didn’t need to get together on this. The Europeans came into Sunday’s singles down three points, and by all accounts the American team was much deeper. Europe’s only possible hope was to frontload their lineup and hope that a flurry of early victories might bewitch the later American golfers. McIlroy had to go first.
And so, for America, Reed also had to go first. That’s what the fans wanted, what the golfing chroniclers wanted, and what Reed himself wanted. There could be no other way.
From the first hole, it was utterly mesmerizing. Reed began his day with a pulled drive – his ball hooked into the woods where it settled behind a tree. McIlroy launched a majestic drive that split the fairway. Anticlimax lingered in the air. These sorts of ultra-hyped matchups so often end in a disappointing poof of smoke and in wasted pay-per-view dollars. Reed could only hack it out, and his ball rolled to the rough in front of the green.
Now, it seemed certain that McIlroy would hit one stiff, make his birdie, and walk away with from the first hole with a 1-up lead. But instead he flew his second shot into the bunker. The happy roars of the crowd rang through Hazeltine. The announcer Ben Wright once called that sound “evil music.” Reed chipped his ball to about 20 feet of the hole. McIlroy’s sand shot rolled to 10 or so feet.
Then Reed drained his par putt, sending the crowd into hysterics.
And McIlroy made his par putt, all but silencing them.
No. This would not be an anticlimax.
The next seven holes would be a ride unlike anything ever seen in the history of golf. The crowds had never been quite this big. The intensity had never been quite this high. The sounds – well, grizzled observer after observer would insist that they had never heard it so loud at a golf course, not at Augusta, not a Pebble Beach, not at St. Andrews, not anywhere.
There was a famous moment during the Duel in the Sun, the 1977 Open showdown at Turnberry between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, when the crowd was so unruly and feverish that Nicklaus simply sat on his golf bag and said to the marshals, “This is getting out of control. We’ll wait.” And Watson and Nicklaus did wait until things settled somewhat.
The Hazeltine crowd was not disruptive in the same way – they were not running on the course, for instance – but they were every bit as frenzied. Reed and McIlroy did not sit on their golf bag and wait it out. Instead, they pushed the crowd to 11, and then they rode the emotion. On the second hole, McIlroy again seemed in position to win the hole, but he missed a 6-foot putt. The cheers for his miss were overwhelming, more evil music. On the third, McIlroy broke through, hitting two shots out of the rough and making a 10-footer that the gallery had tried to will out of the hole with their screams. He pumped his fist.
On the fifth, it was Reed’s turn. On a short par 4, he slashed an astonishing drive and the ball rolled to within 6 feet of the cup. “Come on!” he screamed, much like he had screamed a day earlier when he had holed a shot from the fairway for an eagle. Various people there would say that moment on Saturday was the loudest roar in the history of golf. Sunday’s roar when Reed made that eagle putt had to be every bit as loud.
At the seventh, Reed made his 12-foot birdie putt, and he fist-pumped the crowd to an even higher level of madness. McIlroy made his 10-foot birdie putt on top, and raised his index finger to his lips, a librarian’s “shhhhhh.” This was the gesture Reed famously made two years earlier to the boisterous European crowd (and one hole earlier in McIlroy's direction on the sixth green). In both cases, it had an opposite effect.
All of it felt like the downhill portion of a roller coaster – fast, loose, fun, scary, a bit out of control. Was this golf, so known for its whispers and golf claps? It felt more like Auburn-Alabama. It felt more like Man City-Man United. “Partisanship is what the Ryder Cup is all about,” Tom Watson says. “U.S. vs. Europe. And the fans act accordingly.”
The two men teed on the par-3 eighth, and as they approached the green they had no idea that this was to be the crescendo, not only for this match but for this new age of golf. McIlroy’s tee shot dad come up a club short, his ball 55-60 feet away from the hole. “Happy to get out of here with a par,” an announcer said on the BBC as McIlroy hit his putt. But from the very start there seemed something purposeful about the ball, something stubborn and determined. It rolled insistently up a crest and down, breaking always toward the hole the way a plant bends toward the sunlight. When it plopped into the cup, McIlroy lost all restraint.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” he shouted, holding on to his howl for as long as his breath would allow, and then he he put his hand up to his ear. “I can’t hear you!” he screamed to the already-deafening crowd, and so they got even louder, mixing boos with cheers with the sort of happy sound you make when you’re in exactly the right place in the world. It was pure insanity. There seemed no higher place to go.
Then Reed looked over his 22-foot birdie putt and he knew what he had to do, what this moment demanded of him. Nothing seems to thrill him more than pressure. He stepped over his putt, knocked it in, and while the new decibel record for noise at a golf tournament hovered around him, he looked over at McIlroy and wagged his finger. Not today, Rory. No, not today.
And then McIlroy did the greatest thing of all. He started laughing. The two men came together and high-fived. McIlroy patted Reed’s chest. Reed put his arm around McIlroy’s shoulder. It proved reminiscent of that moment in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series when in the midst of baseball’s greatest game, Pete Rose turned to Carlton Fisk and said, “This is some kind of game, isn’t it?”
After that, there really was no place to go. The golfers walked over to the ninth hole, and they both played emotionally drained and scratchy golf the rest of the way. McIlroy made three bogeys and six pars over the next nine holes. Reed did him just one better, making one birdie along with three bogeys and five pars. The crowd was still loud and occasionally over the line – at one point, someone shouted during McIlroy’s backswing. Everyone in the crowd quickly pointed out the culprit. “I’d say 95 percent of the crowd was fantastic,” McIlroy said after. He would later adjust the number up to 99.5 percent.
The last embers of magic glowed on the 18th hole, where both men hit their approaches close – so close that the official had to measure to see which ball was away. It turned out that Reed’s ball was away, which was just fine with him. He didn’t have to wait. He knocked in the birdie putt to win the match.
But Reed winning and McIlroy losing was almost beside the point. The U.S. steamrolled to a 17-11 victory, its largest in 35 years, and it was clear for most of the weekend that this particular European team was outgunned and outmanned. The result would suggest a forgettable event, but no one will forget McIlroy and Reed on Sunday at the Ryder Cup. When Tiger Woods won the Masters almost 20 years ago, everyone could sense that a new era of golf was beginning – and it obviously was. We wondered where it would all lead.
And this is where it led. Golf erupted Sunday. Good times never seemed so good.