Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 8, 2018

A New Generation Jousts For A Jacket

The golf season has officially begun. No, not for weekend players here in New Hampshire, where a series of late winter snowstorms would make a round at one of the few courses that have put flags in the cups more like a slog in the swamp than a walk in the park. But whether one has posted any scores, once the Masters has been played another year of the ancient game is underway for fans everywhere.

In the days before Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player took their turns as honorary starters at Augusta National, much of the media focus was on the chances for two familiar stalwarts of a more recent generation, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. The former recently ended a nearly five-year long winless streak with a victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship, while the latter’s recent return to the PGA Tour after multiple back surgeries has been marked by surprisingly good play.

But now that the tournament is over, it’s clear that the pundits who predicted that Mickelson or Woods or both would be in the mix come Sunday afternoon had allowed sentiment to cloud their judgment. That’s not to say the neither will ever again contend for another green jacket. The Masters is in many ways the easiest of the four majors to win. It’s the only one played on the same course every year, so over time players become intimately familiar with every impossibly green inch of Augusta. It also has the smallest field, including several amateurs and aging former champions who have no realistic chance of winning. That means there are fewer fellow competitors standing in the way of a would-be champion.

But fewer doesn’t mean none, and the focus on Mickelson and Woods ignored how the PGA Tour has changed. Both are in their forties, with Phil now a year older than Nicklaus was when he improbably won his sixth Masters in 1986. In their place a new generation has taken control of the game, as became evident during this year’s tournament. A second round 79 nearly sent Mickelson home early, while Woods didn’t return a card with a subpar score until Sunday’s final round. There was a moment early in Saturday’s third round, after Woods started with two bogeys and Mickelson went four over on the first two holes that the pair were the last two names at the very bottom of the leader board.

Up at the top of that board were young players who grew up watching Lefty and Tiger on television. The leader after one round was 24-year-old Jordan Spieth. To say that Augusta National fits the young Texan’s eye doesn’t begin to capture the extent to which Spieth’s game and the course align. In four previous appearances he finished second, first, second, and eleventh. So when he staked himself to a two-shot lead with an opening 66, fans were quick to imagine another wire-to-wire win for Spieth, just like 2015. While that didn’t happen, with Spieth sliding down the leaderboard the next two rounds, his role in the tournament was far from over.

The 66 on Friday belonged to Patrick Reed. Coupled with his opening 69, the 6-under par performance was good enough to put the 27-year-old two clear of Marc Leishman and four in front of Henrik Stenson at the midway point. Reed’s intensity and passion are always on display on the golf course, and in Saturday’s third round he had multiple opportunities for fist pumps. Even par through seven holes, he ran off three straight birdies through the turn and then made eagle on both of the back nine’s par-5s. He finished with a 67 to go 14-under, three clear of his closest pursuer.

That role went to 28-year-old Rory McIlroy, the four-time major winner who came to Augusta again trying to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. McIlroy’s third round 67 including a chip-in for eagle on the par-5 8th hole and a long birdie putt on the 18th to stay within striking distance of the leader. Following behind McIlroy were 29-year-old Rickie Fowler and 23-year-old Jon Rahm, at 9 and 8-under respectively.

As was the case with the focus on Mickelson and Woods before the tournament, much of the media again got the storyline wrong for Sunday by focusing on the final pairing of Reed and McIlroy. It was characterized as a match play situation, harkening back to their singles match at the 2016 Ryder Cup. But in a stroke play tournament, especially at Augusta where the scoring opportunities are all around the course, the result would have been very different had the two played as if the other was the only golfer needing to be bested.

Despite vocal support from the massive galleries, McIlroy did not bring his best game to the final round. He blocked his opening tee shot wildly to the right, and needed all his imagination and skill to save par. He then struck two perfect shots on the downhill par-5 2nd hole, leaving a short putt for eagle. With Reed having bogeyed the 1st and managing only a par at the 2nd, the seemingly certain three would have vaulted McIlroy into a tie. But his putt slid by the right side of the hole. While he made birdie to close to within one, the short miss began a downhill slide for McIlroy, who eventually finished with a 2-over 74 for a share of fifth place. Had Reed throttled back his game, content with doing just enough to edge his fellow competitor, a different golfer would now be wearing the green jacket.

Of course, professional golfers are intensely driven and don’t buy into silly media narratives, so that didn’t happen. While McIlroy fell back, others surged forward to challenge Reed. Starting four groups and forty minutes before the final twosome, Spieth had the good fortune to play with his close friend Justin Thomas. With the comfortable pairing Spieth raced out to a fast start, making three birdies in the first five holes. He added two more and the 8th and 9th to turn in 31 strokes. The par-3 12th hole has twice ruined Spieth’s chances at the Masters. Sunday his tee shot stayed dry, and he converted a 30-foot putt from the back fringe to pull within three of the lead.

The putt also moved Spieth to 6-under for the day. At the next hole he had a makeable putt for eagle, but it stayed straight when he thought it would break to his right. Still, that tap-in birdie and two more on the 15th and 16th holes put Spieth at 9-under for his round and 14-under for the tournament. That both matched the tournament record for a single round and tied him with Reed. It would have been the greatest final round comeback in Masters history, but it didn’t last. An errant drive led to a bogey at the last, and Spieth settled for a third-place finish.

In the penultimate group Fowler and Rahm both tried to give chase, with the golfer in the familiar Sunday orange garb coming the closest. One over par after seven holes, Fowler made six birdies coming home to post a 14-under total. But Reed had gone one stroke better by making a putt at the 14th hole, and while he looked to be feeling the pressure of winning his first major down the closing stretch, Reed held his nerve with four pars for a final 71 and a one-shot win.

Reed has always appeared confident to the point of arrogance in his ability, but perhaps his bluster has been a bit of a façade, a way of dealing with the spotlight. There were tears in his eyes as he embraced his caddie after the final putt fell, and at the green jacket ceremony on the lawn in front of the clubhouse Reed seemed at a loss for words, as if not quite believing that he had really won. And bluster aside, Reed’s record in the majors has been lacking. His tie for second at last year’s PGA Championship was his first top-10 in any major and in four previous tries at Augusta National he’d only made the cut twice, never finishing in the top-20. Perhaps we should all be surprised that Patrick Reed is wearing a green jacket. What’s not at all surprising is that this year’s winner was a golfer in his twenties. That’s the storyline that everyone should have seen all along.

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Responses

  1. i saw a few minutes of the tournament last Friday at a friend’s house and Reed was 10 under at one point. It’s nice to hear that he won—he worked for it.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. Reed has a complicated backstory, the details of which you can easily find on the web. He’s certainly not the most liked Masters champion. But he is the champion, having survived the crucible of Sunday at a major. As you quite correctly said, he worked for it!

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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