It’s not too often in life that you get a shot at redemption but this evening Rory McIlroy has two. Far from the Mickelson –v- Woods showdown that many expected, it’s the new generation that squares off against Augusta and each other in a bid for a first green jacket.
The pair are no strangers either. Tasked with landing the first point in the singles for their respective sides at the Ryder Cup in Hazeltine in 2016, it was the unlovable Reed who got the better of a hyped-up McIlroy in a vintage duel, while it was the whispering Azaleas that got inside Rory’s head when he led the Masters with nine to go in 2011 before it all fell apart so suddenly.
Better for the experience but still waiting for a career Grand Slam, he now has that opportunity to avenge both those losses and gain golfing immortality tonight. To whet the appetite, let me take you back to a match that had everything but a European win, and a moment that for me defined it. I expect a much more ruthless Rory to claim what’s his this time around:
McIlroy –v- Reed – A rivalry is born
‘If it was a staring contest then McIlroy blinked first, but not before his eyes bled in agony. He and Patrick Reed were charged with landing that crucial first blow and neither were in the mood to relinquish the centre of the ring. It was a clash of graceful swagger versus boorish strength. The matador against the Loco Toro, only on this occasion the Hazeltine mob bade for blood and no matter how many times Reed was to be foiled by a pass of McIlroy’s cape, he wasn’t going to relent until he’d punctured a lung.
Often these top-billed encounters are doomed to fail, particularly when the Sky Sport’s propaganda juggernaut is pushing its agenda, but no sooner had Reed holed an imperative par save for a half on the first, had the decibel levels reached fever pitch. Unperturbed, McIlroy went one up through four as the multiple Major champion looked to establish superiority over his American adversary and his rowdy followers, but ask any Galway publican and he’ll tell you that it’s not easy to silence a yank after a few pints of porter. No matter how much McIlroy fed off the frenzied energy, Reed always seemed to be one pie ahead in the eating contest. Not even a birdie at the reachable fifth was enough as a drive to eight feet set up an eagle win for Reed.
At the sixth, Reed cornered McIlroy with a stunning approach as momentum looked set to shift in true Ryder Cup fashion. But again McIlroy proved elusive, rolling in a confident first putt, only to be followed in by the bull showing eerie signs of encouragement. A mimicking bow coupled with a Destiny’s Child finger waggle incited the baying mob further but McIlroy was as unflinching as he was unrecognisable as he continued to tease the Toro. Another Reed birdie at seven fuelled the incessant hollers of red white and blue to breaking point, but McIlroy intervened with a birdie of his own, mercifully muting the interminable crowds, at least momentarily, with a shushing gesture founded in frustration, though masked in theatre.
As both players graciously hit relatively mundane tee shots to the par 3 eighth, I took an overdue breath and wondered where my appetite had gone, and if it returned, how I’d ever peel myself from the couch in order to eat. Then Rory exploded. A fifty foot right to left breaker, a routine thank you very much two putt and move on, thrust into the gut of Reed at the first time of asking. After all the toing and froing, the matador had struck a decisive blow with the sword and the bull for once looked fragile. Yet this was no ordinary duel and there was life in Reed yet. Provoked by McIlroy’s antagonistic reaction, Reed took advantage of a premature celebration with a devastating equaliser.
To that point, the players had convinced the audience that they were archrivals and the spectacle benefitted from the tension. But when McIlroy smiled and sought out Reed’s fist in acknowledgment of an epic encounter, he showed the first sign of weakness. Relieved of the intensity that had sparked his part in the magical contest, McIlroy blinked, and just like that, the match was lost.