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The Greatest Game Ever Played: Revisiting Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy’s 2016 Ryder Cup Showdown

The final round at Hazeltine, when a golf tournament turned into a playground basketball game and two of the sport’s ascendant talents trash-talked, finger-wagged, crowd-shushed, and electrified the world, all while playing the round of their lives

Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy Elias Stein/Getty Images

Golf is a languid sport. There’s no stressful timer that ensures a round is done in 48 or 90 minutes, no shot clock counting down each possession. The closest things in golf are pace-of-play rules, but even those can be flexible—remember Jordan Spieth’s 30-minute sequence at last year’s Open Championship? Golf takes up hours without even trying, even days if you’re really good at it, all for that one moment that comes—hopefully with a trophy—at the end of a tournament. That’s part of its charm: Golf allows you to immerse yourself in it without thought of the outside world. It’s played on quiet, beautiful scenery, and composure is seen as an important attribute of the world’s best players. As Harry Vardon, one of the sport’s original stars said, “For this game you need, above all things, to be in a tranquil frame of mind.”

There’s golf. And then there’s the Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup—a match-play tournament that pits Europe’s best golfers against their U.S. counterparts—is El Clásico, Yankees–Red Sox, and the Daytona 500 all rolled into one and dropped into a space that isn’t prepared for it. It’s national—and international—pride, tens of thousands of rabid fans, and all the flag-related costumes you could think of. Every two years, this tournament makes up one of the most raucous scenes in the entirety of sports—as it will this week at Le Golf National in Paris. And the 2016 edition at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minnesota, was one of the rowdiest to date.

It’s easy to claim recency bias when talking about an event only two years in our collective memory. And trying to pin down a tournament’s place in history—especially a history as long as the game of golf’s—is especially difficult. But the 2016 Ryder Cup was monumental for the U.S. side, and that Sunday’s first singles match between Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed was one for the ages. McIlroy, Europe’s de facto leader that weekend, and Reed, who earned himself the moniker of Captain America over the course of the tournament, put together one of the most exuberant, adrenalized matches the Ryder Cup—and golf as a whole—has ever seen. And their four-hole stretch from no. 5 through no. 8 that Sunday may be remembered as the most entertaining of all time.

The hype surrounding Reed vs. McIlroy started long before the pairing was announced that Saturday night. Throughout the weekend, both men had assumed the mantle of being their teams’ emotional leaders.

“[McIlroy] had just come off a Tour Championship win and ... his performance is often so driven by how confident he is at any given time,” Kyle Porter, a golf writer for CBS Sports, said over the phone. “He had just won $10 mil, I think he was feeling himself a little bit. ... That was the first Ryder Cup in a long time that [Europe] didn’t have Ian Poulter, and [McIlroy] knew that he was going to have to kind of fill that role.”

For his part, Reed was out to prove that his performance two years prior—when he went 3-0-1 in his first Ryder Cup appearance at Gleneagles—wasn’t a fluke. “He has this unbelievable and unmistakable sense of confidence to him. You can sense it when you talk to him,” said NBC Sports’ Dan Hicks, who was a member of the broadcast team that weekend. “I just remember going into Friday, the first start—we thought we liked what we saw in Scotland in Gleneagles, but this could be even better.”

McIlroy and Reed came into this Ryder Cup at very different places in their respective careers. McIlroy was the no. 3 ranked player in the world. He’d already won four major tournaments, was coming off two top-10 major finishes that season, and had won two tournaments and the FedEx Cup within the last month. Reed, on the other hand, had just five PGA Tour wins to his name, and only one had come in 2016. “The funny thing is, Patrick Reed probably thought he was an equal or better than Rory,” said Brendan Porath, a golf writer for SB Nation. “Rory was a generational player at the time and still is. … Yet, Reed somehow approached it as if they were both hall of famers.”

Both players’ starts were mixed bags. That Friday, Reed and his partner Spieth—who were paired together through the first two days—won their early foursome match 3 and 2 over Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose but then lost to that duo 5 and 4 in the afternoon four-ball round. McIlroy alternated partners over the day, going with Andy Sullivan in a foursome loss to Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler and the untested Thomas Pieters in an afternoon win over Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar. And from the first match of the weekend, McIlroy took on the role of antagonist.

“He and Mickelson had a tense couple of exchanges on the first day,” said ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg. “Rory hit a drive left into the rough on one of the holes … and Phil came over to check the lie, just because it was alternate shot. And Rory was like, ‘We’re fine here, Phil. Why don’t you just go back over there?’”

That attitude bled into Saturday’s rounds, and into the crowd. The fans had been rowdy to that point—most at the acceptable level of volatility that typically defines Ryder Cup galleries—but by Day 2 many were seen to be over the line. McIlroy had one gallery member ejected for inappropriate conduct, and plenty more went on to mock aspects of his personal life—specifically, his history with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. “The fans started singing ‘Sweet Caroline,’” Van Valkenburg said, “and he was making birdies and eagles and singing it back to them and doing the Florida Gator chomp.”

McIlroy seemed to feed off the hostility of the crowd. He and Pieters took down Mickelson and Fowler 4 and 2 in the morning and Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson 3 and 1 in the afternoon. “It was almost like ... he turned into Barry Bonds for a second,” Van Valkenburg said. “He got better because of the negative energy.”

When McIlroy wasn’t tearing up the course, he was (jokingly) tearing up the assembled media. Chris Solomon, a founder of the website No Laying Up, was following McIlroy’s match that afternoon, in part because the day before he’d called for the Johnson-Koepka pairing. Midway through the round, with a comfortable lead, McIlroy approached Solomon, with whom he’d exchanged messages before but had never met in person. “I’m following that match and I’m back at the ninth tee,” Solomon said. “Rory hit his shot and I’m sitting on a bench [near the tee box]. He comes over, throws something in the trash can, sits right next to me and he’s three up on the team that I wanted. He just kind of nudges me with his elbow and says, ‘Hey, you got your wish.’ It was a stunning moment for me. ... He shit-talked me in the middle of a Ryder Cup match.”

On the U.S. side, Reed had his hands full with Spieth as his partner. This past March, Reed and Spieth went head-to-head at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and before the matchup, Reed was asked what Spieth’s greatest strength was in that style tournament. Reed responded, “I don’t know, my back still hurts from the last Ryder Cup.” Reed’s comment was taken (mostly) in jest, but Spieth had his share of struggles over Friday and Saturday at Hazeltine.

In the morning rounds, Reed made sure the U.S. didn’t lose any ground, and in the afternoon he took it upon himself to topple Rose and Stenson. On the par-5 sixth, Reed holed out from 79 yards for an eagle and, according to Van Valkenburg, gave Spieth such a hearty high-five that Jordan said he felt like he’d broken his hand.

Reed continued his crushing pace the rest of the afternoon, and the pair made birdies on nos. 14, 15, and 16 to eventually take the match. “I was watching up close when [Reed] made one of the birdie putts late in that Saturday afternoon,” Van Valkenburg said, “and it was just me and Bill Murray standing in the stands, right next to each other. And Bill was like, ‘This is one heck of a match, isn’t it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s awesome, Bill.’”

After Saturday’s rounds, it was clear who the teams’ best players were. Fans were clamoring for a Reed-McIlroy showdown during Sunday’s singles round. The U.S. led the tournament 9.5-6.5 heading into the final day, and with the memory of the team’s epic meltdown four years before at Medinah—when they came into Sunday leading 10-6 and wound up falling to Europe by a final of 14.5-13.5—still fresh, fans were eager for the U.S. to set the tone early Sunday.

Unlike the Presidents Cup, where captains have some leeway to match players up at will, both team leaders submit their roster in a blind draw for the Ryder Cup; neither knows where their counterpart is slotting any of their players. It was always assumed that Darren Clarke, Europe’s captain, would send McIlroy out of the gate first for his side—McIlroy was by far the team’s best player that weekend, and the Europeans needed all the momentum they could get early on to try to upset the Americans once again. U.S. captain Davis Love III had a tougher decision on his hands. Reed would be his biggest weapon Sunday, but the question was whether he should deploy him against McIlroy, who had a strong chance of diffusing Reed, or send him out later in the lineup to get a virtually guaranteed win.

Porath remembered exactly where he was when the lineups were announced, and he found out that Reed and McIlroy would play the first match of the day Sunday. “It was late Saturday night, and we all started freaking out in the media center,” he said. “I remember we dropped our pens and put our hands on our heads. We can be impartial journalists but also be excited about getting that gift. We started just staring at each other with our mouths open.”

“I think there had to be almost a wink-wink agreement between Clarke and Love that was basically like, ‘OK, let’s do this. It’s for the good of the game. These are both of our top dogs,’” said Van Valkenburg. “I remember people saying there’s no chance, that Rory’s playing out of his mind right now, why waste Patrick Reed against Rory? … And I was like, ‘No … you think Rory is a sure thing to beat Patrick? No way.’”

By 11:04 a.m. CT that Sunday, fans had been at it for hours—in terms of atmosphere, the Ryder is closer to the Waste Management Phoenix Open than the Masters. The grandstands around the first tee were full, and spectators were lined up 20-deep surrounding the walkway to the tee, just trying to catch a glimpse of McIlroy and Reed. “There’s a video of it that I go back and watch sometimes because I get the chills—how loud that crowd was just for [Reed] walking up to the tee,” Solomon said. “For a guy who’s not [the most] popular guy on tour, for one week a year, he is treated like a king.”

Hicks called it a “football stadium roar,” and Van Valkenburg likened it to a soccer match. Both players had massive receptions when they hit the tee box, Reed with U-S-A chants and McIlroy with … something else. “There was this European contingent that was on the first tee, and they started singing ‘Patrick Reed is terrified, Rory’s on fire. Patrick Reed is terrified, Rory’s on fire,’” Porter said. “Rory started dancing on the first tee. And it was more of the embodiment of him taking on that Ian Poulter role. But he was dancing to them singing.”

The energy seemed to be throwing the players off on the first hole. Reed smoked his drive out left of the fairway and wound up with a long putt to save par. McIlroy’s approach shot went past the green into a bunker before he eventually matched Reed’s par with one of his own.

That back-and-forth continued from the second through the fourth hole, with both players trying to find their rhythm—and figure out their opponent’s. At no. 2, McIlroy had a putt to make birdie and win the hole, but it broke left and missed by inches. He finally went one-up on Reed at no. 3, and after matching pars at no. 4, McIlroy carried a one-shot lead into the fifth.

That’s when things started to shift. The fifth hole at Hazeltine is a drivable par-4. McIlroy was first off the tee for the group, and he hit his drive to the front edge of the green. Reed followed by skipping his ball up onto the green, leaving himself a putt for eagle. “Rory’s the best driver in the world,” Porath said, “yet there’s Patrick putting it closer.” Reed nailed the long putt, trumping Rory’s birdie attempt. That’s when the fireworks really started.

“I remember that eagle, thinking this is the best golf that we might ever see played just between two guys going head to head,” Van Valkenburg said. “We were joking, this is like our Duel in the Sun with [Jack] Nicklaus and [Tom] Watson. That’s what the equivalent of it is.”

At no. 6, Reed followed up his eagle from Saturday with an approach that landed just feet from the hole. McIlroy putted first, as his ball was farther out than Reed’s, and he made it, pumping his first and letting out his first yell of the day. But this celebration was different than the others McIlroy let loose through Friday and Saturday. “All week, Rory had directed the anger, and emotion, and celebration at the crowd,” Porath said. “Not at his opponent—you get into kind of offending some sort of archaic golf sensibility with yelling at your opponent. But all week Rory had sought out the grandstands and kind of shouted at the grandstands. I remember at 6 when he made his birdie putt, he started [looking] at the grandstand and then did this pivot and kept screaming in the direction of Reed. It [had been] like this gladiator shouting at the crowd, but at this moment, he kind of turned and also shouted in the direction of Reed. ... I think that changed the dynamic of how they were going to celebrate in this run of birdies. I remember it distinctly, it was different.”

As Reed lined up over the ball, the crowd grew tense—both contingents waiting to see whether the putt would go in and then how Reed would react to McIlroy’s display. Reed buried the putt then turned to send a bow toward the hole and a Dikembe Mutombo–esque finger-wag toward McIlroy. This was golf as playground basketball, and the two spent the next two holes trying to see how far they could take it.

At no. 7, after nailing his putt for birdie, Reed let loose a shout and a double fist pump. McIlroy followed that up with his own birdie attempt to halve the hole, and before the putt was even halfway to the cup, NBC’s Roger Maltbie said on the broadcast, “Can’t wait to see the reaction if this one goes in”—which, of course, it did. McIlroy did a 180 turn, stared at the crowd, and lifted his finger in a shushing motion as Reed started his walk to no. 8.

“It was just mayhem [at that point],” said Solomon. “It was crazy—me and [McIlroy] ended up walking close to each other to the eighth hole, and I kind of shook my head at him, said, ‘You son of a bitch.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I figured you’d like that.’”

But nothing up to that point would come close to the eighth hole. Both players had birdie putts that, when combined, seemed to span the length of the green. McIlroy went first, lining up for a 60-foot try. As the ball sloped toward the hole, NBC’s announcers calmly chatted about the crowds and the excitement that had followed this pairing. But as the ball, unbelievably, sloped closer and closer to the hole, Hicks interjected, somewhat shocked, asking, “Is Rory gonna sink another one? Yes!” The putt dropped in, and McIlroy celebrated by flexing every muscle in his body. He seemed to momentarily levitate off the ground.

McIlroy screamed at the crowd, holding his hands up around his ears and yelling, “I can’t hear you!” That image of McIlroy untethered to the earth has stayed with Van Valkenburg. “I remember when that happened, I just put my head in my notebook and just screamed as loud as I could. I couldn’t even hear it because it was so loud, but it was just letting off that energy. ... I’ve been to a couple of Olympics, and I’ve been to three Super Bowls and a lot of NFL playoff games, but that right there was just—you knew it was as good as golf was going to get maybe in your lifetime.”

Reed’s follow-up putt was no easy task either, a 20-footer from the lake-side edge of the green. He fired it in—no slow rolling on that putt—and immediately shifted his body so that he could smilingly finger-wag in McIlroy’s direction. As they were leaving the green, both players seemed to laugh in disbelief, and they fist-bumped along the walk to no. 9.

“After the eighth hole,” Porter said, “I remember looking over and like 10 feet away from me, Tiger [Woods, a U.S. vice captain] was standing there. ... He was just sitting there, laughing at the whole thing. And I was like man, the greatest golfer of all time is sitting here laughing about what’s happening, in the middle of the Ryder Cup.”

From there, the match slowed—the adrenaline that had been coursing through the gallery and the players for the front nine dissipated and the come down was 10 holes of solid, if unaffecting, golf. Reed went two-up on McIlroy with a birdie on 16, and though Rory got it back within one on 17, Reed went on to win the match and secure a point for his side.

The U.S. finished the day with a victory, its first in the Ryder Cup since 2008, but the lasting images from the win weren’t of trophies or team celebrations (though there were certainly some good photos of that, too)—they were of Reed and McIlroy battling across four holes on the front nine.

Hicks, who’s been covering the Ryder Cup since 1993, said, “Holes 5 through 8 were the best four-hole stretch I’ve ever experienced on the air in golf. There have been some great moments [in other tournaments], but four-hole stretches—nothing comes close to what we saw from 5 through 8.”

“I saw [Dustin Johnson’s] final round at the U.S. Open, Oakmont … I walked with Rory on his final round at Chambers when he looked like he was going to shoot a 62 or 63 at some point,” Van Valkenburg said. “I was there for a couple Spieth rounds at the Old Course in ’15, when he got back into contention. … But just in terms of sheer enjoyment, the Rory-Reed thing was no. 1 [of the rounds I’ve covered].”

The match has stuck with Reed and McIlroy, too. At last year’s U.S. Open, Reed wore his Ryder Cup pants for the third round, and during his run through the Masters field this spring en route to winning his first major, he sported his Ryder Cup umbrella. It followed McIlroy at this past Masters, too—he and Reed were paired up in the final round, something many were painting as a Ryder Cup “rematch.”

It’s also changed the perception of their career trajectories. Many see Reed as something of a “golf villain,” a persona that was at least partially crafted during his two Ryder Cup appearances. As he walked up to the 18th green with the lead at this year’s Masters, the cheers he received were noticeably more muted than those that Rickie Fowler got just before him. And McIlroy, who played with so much confidence that weekend in 2016, hasn’t shown much of that since. “Patrick slayed him in a sense,” Van Valkenburg said of their match. “It was like Rory was the king of the sport, and honestly ... I don’t know that Rory’s ever been the same since that. It was like Patrick Reed kind of took away the last of his swagger, and we’ve not seen that since.”

As that Sunday wound down to a close, most of the people at the course knew they’d witnessed an instant classic—even McIlroy. Porter said he was walking across the bridge that led from the course to the media center at day’s end when he felt an arm come around him. He looked back, and it was McIlroy. “I asked him, ‘This week was unbelievable, wasn’t it?’ And he was just like, ‘It really was.’”

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