The game of professional golf does not have home and away players. Fans, and especially patrons, as they are called at the Masters, do not root against players. They root harder and louder for some more than others, but there’s never any active rooting against the other guy playing next to or on the same course as the one that may be your preferred choice.
But the muted reactions and awkward silences were deafening on Sunday at Augusta National. Patrick Reed held off a trio of chargers at different stages over a final round afternoon of 71 that delivered him the green jacket. First came Rory McIlroy, then came Jordan Spieth, and last came Rickie Fowler. All three were favored more by these Augusta galleries in a distinctly noticeable way.
It did not matter to Reed. He probably preferred it that way, choosing to use the favoritism to stay pissed off and stay on top of the leaderboard. This is generally where he succeeds most and why he’s been such a brilliant asset for team USA in the Ryder Cup, the one event where there are home and away teams.
So much of what happens at Augusta National can only be discerned by crowd reactions. You have no phone so there’s no Twitter updating you instantly on the shot or streaming to play as you walk. There are no earpiece radios. There are no video boards of any kind. There are only manual leaderboards and they are only updated when a player completes a hole and a new number can be put in one of the 18 slots.
It’s also one of the most brilliant pieces of land you could ever lay a golf course on, with mounds and hills tumbling and cascading on every hole. But because of that elevation change, and some of the Sunday pins, there are several blind shots. You need the gallery lining the ropes and up in the grandstands around the greens to react, emote, give you something. That something may be a loud cheer that reverberates across that corner of the course, or it may be this very defined groan about some misfortune your golf ball up ahead has encountered.
With Reed, we got very little. Standing on the rope line on the blind shots from back in the fairways, I stopped trying to figure out whether it was good or bad based on the crowd reaction. At the third hole, Reed attacked a tucked pin and hit it to 15 feet. It was a precise play that came just moments after McIlroy left his short of the green to that accompanying groan. Reed’s should have elicited a much louder roar, some sort of signal that this shot, from the damn Masters leader, was pure. Reed noticed it, no doubt. He notices all these things and then he went up and poured in the 15 footer to get his lead back to three shots over Rory, the people’s choice in this Sunday final pairing.
Masters 2018: Patrick Reed | 3rd Hole, Round 4 pic.twitter.com/h8RDzJeNOz— Masters Highlights (@MastersMoments) April 8, 2018
This started from the very first tee, and Reed mentioned it. “I walked up to the first tee and had a really welcoming cheer from the fans,” he said after the win. “But then when Rory walked up to the tee, you know, his cheer was a little louder.”
It was a lot louder and it continued on the first nine, really until Rory’s run came to an end at the 8th hole. Rory had an army following him, made up of those who knew him -- like his friends, family, agents, Irish -- and those who didn’t know him. Reed had his wife and a small group of friends decked out in custom Pat Reed New Era caps with an American flag motif.
Every Rory step was greeted with a loud “C’mon Rorrrrrry!” His approach shots into the 2nd and 4th holes, and those birdies, brought the house down. The patrons were wired and ready to watch Rory complete the slam. Reed’s birdies got moderate clapping. After Reed ripped his drive at the 5th hole, one fan shouted “US...a!” fading out on the third letter, slumping his shoulders, and sheepishly looking around.
Reed did not seem to mind this very obvious delineation in what started as a match play exchange of wins through the first six holes. “That’s another thing that just kind of played into my hand,” Reed said about the crowds going for the other guy. “Not only did it fuel my fire a little bit, but also, it just takes the pressure off of me and adds it back to [Rory].”
When Rory bowed out, the galleries found new heroes in Spieth and Fowler. Spieth’s Sunday run was historic and should have legitimately whipped the crowd up in the way that it did. A bullet off the pine straw at the 13th was one of the loudest roars of the day, the resolution of the dramatic moment confirmed by the crowd in a way that we just weren’t getting with Reed’s shots. Spieth’s putt at the 16th hole was the loudest cheer of the day, as the patrons deliriously high-fived each other. Hell, the roars of just posting the news of the birdie a few moments later on leaderboards in other parts of the course were some of the loudest of the day.
The last to make a run at Reed was Rickie, the other major-less contender on this Sunday. Rickie’s contention slipped through the cracks as most on the grounds focused on the Reed-Rory match and then Spieth torching Augusta up ahead. All of a sudden, Rickie was just one shot off the lead and had a chance to force a playoff. The confirmation of his birdie putt at the 18th green could be heard throughout the entire property, including with Reed one hole back.
“To hear that roar on the last, even though I knew Jon [Rahm] was in the group, I just knew it had to be Rickie.” Think about this for a moment. You’re leading the Masters and trying to read crowd reactions to figure out what you need to do to stay ahead and get your first major.
Then, to add to the moment, the scoreboard operator back at the 17th green quickly slapped the news into the 18th hole slot next to Fowler’s name. The numbers are usually quietly slipped into place in no real rush, but this one was slammed in rapidly to get the news up that Rickie was within one. The loud smack at the board was followed by a roar all around the 17th green and 18th tee, and around Reed as he walked to go tee it up for his last hole.
The odd gallery dynamic went right down the very last putt that won the Masters. If you were down the hill at the 18th, looking up at the elevated green, you’d have thought Reed’s shot bounded into the crowd. Instead, he was safely on the edge of green with two putts to win the jacket. The first putt went by the hole, and from down below a “whooaaa” went out as if he’d just putted it off the green. It was four feet away from the hole.
Then Reed cleaned up the four footer and won the Masters. The crowd cheered, politely, made a quick turn and started that Augusta “no running allowed” speed walk down the slopes of the 18th green for the exits. Think of the absolute opposite reaction to Phil’s putt and leap to win in 2004, or even last year’s Sergio putt to win the playoff. It was bizarre, noticeable, and even awkward.
This was how Reed was going to win a major, as an adversary burning up on the inside at the latest slight. Nothing would make him happier to win a green jacket but also do it while stiff-arming a Rory grand slam attempt, the walking brand front man Rickie, and Spieth, who is often jabbed by his peers as “the golden child.” The crowds weren’t against him — the place founded by Bobby Jones wouldn’t allow it. But they were clearly for other guys more and he knew it.
This is where Reed thrives, and he did it right down to the very end, bristling and fist pumping on his par-save at the 17th before he could fully celebrate up on the final green. Golf is an individual sport, but it’s also a collegial game, especially in this era when so many of the 20-somethings also seem to be friends off the course. Reed gets along in the team events. But he’s often operating alone and practicing by himself, as he did this week during Monday’s practice round, going solo and watching one hole behind the madness of a Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, and Justin Thomas trio.
The Masters is the greatest golf tournament in the world but it’s greatness doesn’t mean it has to produce the most popular or obvious winner. Bubba Watson, two-time champion, is not without his flaws and a cohort of detractors. Danny Willett wasn’t the people’s choice but he happily took his green jacket after Spieth came undone in 2016. Even Garcia, last year’s winner, made enemies over the years but his win was celebrated because of those decades of distress and struggle.
We don’t get Tiger or Spieth or Phil or the people’s choice winning every year. It doesn’t make the Masters worse or Patrick Reed any less deserving. Golf’s fickleness in not delivering the obvious choice is what makes it so great, and enhances the moments when it does all come together. Reed is a world-class talent, an American lion in the Ryder Cup, and now a Masters legend. His work on Sunday, and really all weekend, is what you want from a champion, especially in the face of three superstar challengers. His play should be celebrated as such, even if it felt a little subdued in the moment on Sunday.