Rarely in sports does the marquee matchup that we are all pining for live up to the billing. Almost never does it exceed the hype. Patrick Reed vs. Rory McIlroy doesn't belong in either of those categories, because hype doesn't even begin to describe it.
The walk from the range to the first tee at Hazeltine is partially private, but anything from quiet. The tall bleachers behind the tee box protect the player's view of the raucous scene, and the pathway leading to the stairs sits well below the actual teeing area. Unperturbed, legions of fans gathered outside the ropes to the right of the walkway with their sole intention being to rile up the U.S. players as they make their way to the golf's most epic opening tee shot. They're lined up at least 20 deep, with zero hope of seeing the teeing area that sits well above them. Yet they stand, and they wait.
For the rest of the fans gathered around this first tee, it serves as the warning. They can't see through to the range, and can't see the players coming, but they hear the buzz from the pathway below, as Patrick Reed makes his way to the opening tee box to lead off Sunday singles at the Ryder Cup for the United States of America. The ovation begins to crescendo as he rounds the corner, and he's given a hero's welcome from the fans that have been lining the bleachers for hours. He's earned it.
On Saturday afternoon, he delivered one of the all-time Ryder Cup performances, strapping Jordan Spieth to his back, and carrying him across the finish line to beat Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson in a fourball match that had Rose's caddie applauding in Reed's direction just before they shook hands at the end on the 16th green. At the time, I called it the defining moment of the Ryder Cup, but The Godfather: Part II on Sunday turned out to be just as legendary.
His spectacular display on Saturday, and a career 5-1-2 Ryder Cup record on his résumé, earned him the top billing for Sunday singles, almost assuredly to face world No. 3 Rory McIlroy. We never heard him actually say it, but everyone in that team room, and everyone who had been on the grounds of Hazeltine so far this week knew that Reed didn't just want to go out first. He also wanted Rory in that spot.
From a résumé standpoint, Reed and McIlroy don't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence. Rory has won four major championships, while Reed is still looking for his first top 10 at a major. The golf world knows that Reed is not on the same level as Rory. McIlroy knows this. But Reed doesn't.
Reed and Rory depart the first tee. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Reed left himself some work for par on the opening hole, but it was almost to his benefit. When his mid-range par putt fell, he let out the first of many maniacal yells that helped set off car alarms in the nearby parking lots. The message was sent on the very first hole that he was not intimidated by Rory, and there was not the slightest chance he would be toning down his antics.
Rory had been a similar maniac at Hazeltine, gesturing towards the hostile crowd at every waking opportunity, and reveling in the banter. But when his putt to halve the hole dropped, there was nothing from him. Just a calm, cool strut to the second tee. Perhaps we'll be seeing a different Rory today? Is he going to refuse to get into an emotional battle with the king of Ryder Cup abrasiveness?
The calm vibe continued for a few holes, but the calamity began on the fifth hole. Rory had the honors after his birdie on the third gave him a 1-up lead, and he smoked a 3-wood just short of the drivable par-four. Reed reached for the driver, blitzed a draw that looked like a heat seeking missile towards the flag and came to rest about 8 feet left of the cup.
As was emblematic for the week, everywhere Reed walked on Sunday, "PATRICK REED!" chants rang out. Tiger Woods, the vice captain in charge of Reed's "pod," walked side by side with Reed down that fairway, and I couldn't help but marvel at what this moment this had to be like for Reed.
"I've represented the U.S. three times at Olympics, Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup, and all of them have been on the road," Reed said on Thursday before play began. "Having a Ryder Cup and being able to represent my country in the U.S., is just going to be awesome. I can't wait to get out there and just hear the crowds just going crazy and all the U.S.A. chants and all that. Because there's just something about playing for your country, and then playing for your country at home, I can only imagine how awesome it's going to be."
Reed is a bit of a lone wolf, and not the most popular player on tour (if I'm being very kind). At the Olympics, more than a few people noted that the other American players (Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, and Matt Kuchar) all played practice rounds together, while Reed played by himself a few holes behind. An ESPN survey asked the question to anonymous PGA Tour players: "_______ is in a fight in the parking lot. You're not helping him." Reed ranked second in the poll behind only Bubba.
Now, he's getting selected by the captain to go out first, to play the European team's best player, leader, and spiritual captain. This week, he's played the role of hero, not villain.
The moment before Reed stood over that aforementioned putt on No. 5 was the last time the color blue was atop the leaderboard. The putt fell, and Reed unleashed another one of his signature two-armed fist pumps, reloading several times a second, while facing the raucous patrons.
Whenever a player had a moment similar to this during the Cup, I would try to walk at least somewhat close to them in between holes, just to get a sense of what it is like to have a tunnel of fans chanting, screaming, and supporting you. This is something that only a select group of players will experience on the home soil, in the course of a three-day span every four years. We're almost 1,500 days away from Whistling Straits! This kind of thing simply does not happen at golf events. I felt things that I didn't know I was capable of feeling.
That eagle brought the match to life, and set off the greatest run of golf and theater that these eyes have ever seen. Rory rolled in a birdie on the par-5 6th, and unleashed a raving yell and fist pump towards a fan that had previously said something to him, and stared him down for an extended period of time.
Not only did Reed answer with a birdie, but he bowed towards the crowd in an obviously mocking gesture towards Rory's Friday evening bow in the direction of the fans after he and Thomas Pieters won their afternoon fourball match. Rory's back was already turned, so he didn't see what Reed did next, which was wag his finger at the Ulsterman like Dikembe Mutombo. It's lit!
The 7th hole was more of the same. Reed birdies, loses his mind. Rory birdies, turns towards the crowd, puts his finger to his lips, and does the vintage Patrick Reed "SHHH" move! I'm looking around at other golf writers, and our mouths are agape.
Rory's tee shot on the par-3 8th comes up about 50 feet short, and with Reed just off the green to the left about 25 feet away, it looked like the crazy run was over. Nope.
Just when it seemed like the moment could not get any bigger or better, they kept upping the ante. What ensued next will be something I never forget.
McIlroy drained the putt, screamed, put both hands to his ears and yelled "I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" towards the fans surrounding the green. The ironic thing was that the noise was deafening. The crowd was done trying to root against Rory, and they showed their appreciation for his fourth straight birdie, and most elaborate celebration yet.
The buzz from what had just occurred had not completely died down when Reed struck his putt, and when it fell in the bottom of the cup, I gave up. I respected the unwritten "media doesn't cheer" rule for as long as I could. But with thousands of fans screaming their heads off, I knew I was safe. I grabbed a perplexed writer/friend, and screamed. It was the loudest ovation I have ever heard on a golf course.
Reed looked directly at Rory, standing just a few feet away this time, and wagged his finger at him again. If this was the NFL, both players would have been penalized back to their own 1-yard lines, but the Ryder Cup is the one week every two years where the extracurriculars are more extravagant than those of the other major sports.
After all of this action and theatrics, the match was still all square. The steam faded a bit on the back nine, but it was no less riveting.
"I don't know if I would really say we ran out of gas. We just played normal golf," said Reed.
When McIlroy bogeyed the 12th hole, Reed took his first lead of the day. On the 16th hole, he went for the par-5 in two, and left it in the right bunker, safely away from the water protecting the green on the left. A tremendous bunker shot to gimme range set off the largest gallery on the course, and when Rory's long birdie try missed, all of a sudden Reed had McIlroy dormie.
A sloppy bogey at the 17th extended the match to where it was always destined to go, which was the final hole. Rory went first, and blistered a drive down the middle. Reed, unable to match Rory's length at any point on this day, also piped one. Reed played first, and does what he does, every single time he is put in this spot. He stuffed it.
Rory matched it, and they actually had to have a marshall measure with a string to see who was away. It was Reed by the fraction of the "ball marker," the referee shouted. Reed was about 8 feet away from putting the first point on the board for the United States. While it would by no means clinch the cup, it's not a stretch to say that Euro captain Darren Clarke himself would have told you that if Rory did not win that opening match, his team had no chance.
I ran a quick survey of a few other writers huddled around the 18th green. "In?"
Unscientific but unanimous. The putt was never in doubt. One more final crazed yell, the signature double fist pump, and a memory that will never be forgotten by American and European golf fans alike.