This won’t surprise you, but owning a national-media credential has its advantages. Flash area, locker room and range access? Yeah, it all helps us do our jobs. But to me, the single-greatest perk is being able to walk inside the ropes (not least because, as one of the vertically challenged, it’s a chore to watch among the masses).
Never was this more evident than at this year’s Ryder Cup, and the Sunday singles match between Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy. The first eight holes of that showdown are My Moment of 2016.
There were 12 matches that day, 24 players, but it seemed like all eyes were on the Reed-McIlroy opener. And for good reason. A day earlier, Reed had seemingly dragged Jordan Spieth across the finish line in their Saturday fourballs match, making seven birdies and an eagle to dispatch Europe’s best team. And McIlroy, one of the most amiable superstars in sports, was every bit as animated as Reed, confronting a beer-soaked spectator who told him to, well, we can’t print that here; barking the chorus of “Sweet Caroline” after fans tried to tweak him about his ex-fiancée; and even bowing to the crowd after a match-clinching eagle, as if to say, “You’re welcome for the show.”
That 11:04 a.m. pairing was what everyone wanted, and so dozens of media types (hey, who said print was dead?) waited on the first tee.
Normally at the Ryder Cup, I walk around the course with a radio stuffed in my left ear – it keeps me informed with so many other matches going on simultaneously. But there was no need for the background noise that day. Either Reed would win, setting the tone for a U.S. rout, or McIlroy would beat the Americans’ heart and soul, paving the way for yet another European comeback.
What happened those next two hours, those first eight holes, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced on a golf course. If they weren’t going to beat each other with birdies, it looked as if they might just settle the score with a steel-cage match.
Everyone recalls the eighth hole, of course, but there were plenty of memorable interactions before then. Reed won the fifth after driving the green and pouring in an 8-footer for eagle. On the next hole, he sank a short putt, then mocked McIlroy’s bow to the crowd and wagged his finger. McIlroy never saw the gesture, but it wasn’t lost on those following the match, including two interested European observers.
“Did you see that s—?” pop star Niall Horan said, as he and vice captain Ian Poulter headed down the hill toward the seventh tee.
“Yeah,” replied Poulter, who then rattled off a few expletives of his own.
McIlroy and Reed matched birdies on the seventh, but the antics continued, as McIlroy stood defiantly on the green and shushed the crowd. (Seriously, the NFL would have had a field day with these demonstrative celebrations.)
Funny, but there was a slight letdown after both players hit their tee shots on the eighth. McIlroy was well short, about 50 feet, prompting more jeers from the crowd. Reed wasn’t tight either, but he had a better look from about 25 feet. They were the worst shots they’d hit it about an hour.
As I stood next to the grandstand behind the eighth green, there already was a sense of foreboding as McIlroy lined up the putt.
“This is going down,” a fan in the first row grumbled.
And it did, spectacularly, as McIlroy’s birdie bomb touched off a wild celebration. He shook with exhilaration, cupped his right hand to his ear and screamed, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Sure, there were some appreciative cheers, but the boos were so loud you’d have thought the Yankees’ closer had just served up a three-run homer to the Red Sox in the bottom of the ninth.
“Let’s go, Reed!” the same fan now hollered. “F— that!”
Unfazed, Reed whacked his putt up the hill and into the cup. He turned toward McIlroy, extended his right hand and, in a moment that was forever immortalized, wagged his index finger, Dikembe Mutombo style. No, no, no. The ground shook, $8 beers flew through the air, and McIlroy could only laugh at the absurdity of it all. He waited for Reed behind the green – not to slug him, thankfully, but to offer a fist bump and a pat on the back. It was a truce.
“It’s over,” I told a golf-writing colleague as we floated toward the ninth tee. “That’s as good as it’ll get.”
And unfortunately, it was. After going a combined 9 under in a four-hole span, their play petered out from there. “We just played normal golf,” Reed would say later. I headed back toward the media tent at the turn, and the duo combined for only a few more birdies, the last coming on the 18th green, where Reed closed out the match with an 8-footer and unleashed one more crazed “Come on!” The teeming crowds roared once last time, a satisfying end to an epic duel – and the best few hours I’ve ever spent inside the ropes.