I suppose it’s fitting that on the 30th anniversary of Sandy Lyle donning the Green Jacket that our generation’s heel of a golfer – a person as sour, dour and sometimes unlovable as Lyle - won the 82nd Masters. Patrick Reed slouched and slogged his way into Butler Cabin and the Green Jacket with a workmanlike-but-uninspiring, up-and-down final-round 71 for a one-shot victory over Rickie Fowler and two over hard-charging Jordan Spieth.
Reed’s win is one of the more unpopular Masters victories in recent memory. Yes, unpopular. Sorry to be the ant at the picnic, but the surly Reed winning in such lack-luster fashion after such gallant, mercurial charges by far more beloved players was a balloon-meet-pin moment that few in golf greeted with much enthusiasm.
“Subdued to the point of being awkward,” was how Sports Illustrated writer Alan Shipnuck described the uncomfortable, almost begrudging smattering of applause that greeted Reed upon becoming a newly-minted major golf champion.
Another veteran magazine writer had a far more acerbic analysis: “You have to have a conscience to choke,” he wrote.
Some readers are questioning why, on what is supposed to be Christmas Day for the world of golf, writers are lining up to criticize the new Masters champion. Why rehash the college-age cheating and stealing accusations? Why bring up his estranged mother, father and sister who watched from their house in Augusta rather than from the gallery? Why throw shade at the man now that he’s finally triumphed, accomplishing a life-long goal in such gritty fashion? Trouble, controversy, and hard feelings still hound Patrick Reed to this day, and we need to know that before we start pronouncing him “Captain America” as Jim Nantz did so nauseatingly on Sunday afternoon as the CBS telecast wound to a close.
“Captain America?” No. “Captain Ugly America?” Quite possibly.
The negative articles serve two important purposes. First, honesty. We looked the other way at Tiger Woods' social awkwardness so often it led to seriously anti-social behavior on his part. The golf media rushed to sell him as the savior of golf and looked silly in retrospect as the depths of his scandals plunged lower and lower.
It’s nice to finally have some transparency from the press, rather than hagiographic hero worship. That's how the media rebuilds trust.
Secondly, there nay be some reverse psychology at work here. In order for Reed to prove the nay-sayers wrong, he’s going to have to take real, measurable strides. Phil Mickelson won a very public and embarrassing unpopularity contest a few years back, and it may have been one of the best things to ever happen to him. He cleaned up his act, for real, not just in press releases. Now Phil is loved wherever he goes. If fear of sharp public criticism impels Reed to do the same type of soul-searching and self improvement, well that’s not just good for him, but it’s also good for golf. We can use all the positive role models we can find.
Which leads me directly to Jordan Spieth.
Reed may have won the Green Jacket, but Spieth’s meteoric rise to the top of the leaderboard electrified everyone. Nine shots out of the lead on Saturday night and seemingly too far back to be a factor, Spieth found a silver lining. Paired comfortably with Justin Thomas, Spieth commented that he’d finally get a chance to play a stress-free round at Augusta.
Stress-free for him; for everyone watching it was mesmerizing, downright poetic golf. The vengeance birdie he carded at 12 was a clarion call. The hybrid he struck from the pine straw on 13 was shades of Phil Mickelson in 2010. (And like Phil, he missed the eagle putt.) And when he rammed home the 25-foot putt on 16 that got him to 9 under for the day, he was suddenly – for the moment - tied for the lead.
Sadly he started the day too far back, but his 64 tied the final-round Masters record. You can’t call it Tiger-esque because Tiger never used to charge from behind like that on Sunday at a major. It was Arnold Palmer-like. And he came within a whisker of going Jack Nicklaus one better. Had he won, it would have been the greatest final-round comeback in Masters history.
Even without a second Green jacket – for now - Jordan is our Golden Boy. He’s Tiger, but without the baggage and the attitude. Jordan shows us we don’t need swagger, we don’t need hyper-aggression, and we don’t need machismo. Moreover, everything Woods did reeked of Hot Topic and Nike (or was it Kowa pain reliever and Monster energy drinks? I never can remember. Tiger told us he was all about family, but is was all about money and selling an image. But Spieth’s image is real. It’s down-home, homespun Texas family values.
We wanted another Arnie or Jack, and we looked to Tiger. Well we don’t need Tiger any more, we have Jordan. The ratings on Sunday proved that he moves the needle in a way no one since peak Woods has, and he won’t break our hearts or let us down like Woods has continued to do time and again. In defeat, Spieth was graceful and classy.
Reed has a golden opportunity to do the same. We love Reed the athlete. We love Reed the competitor. But there’s more to being an ambassador of golf than just ball-striking and clutch putting.
There is a huge difference between being a hater and being a detractor. A hater's dislike is a visceral, reactionary response -- almost involuntary and unthinking. But a detractor frequently has a point, and in Reed’s case they have several good ones. The kid still has a lot of growing up to do off the golf course. Handsome is as handsome does, and he will be judged by his actions off the course just as much as from his play on the course, as it should be for everyone.
Fortunately for Reed, who better to learn from than the Green Coats at Augusta? They are true stewards of the ethos and virtues and character of the game. If Reed is smart, he’ll follow them wherever they lead him. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for him. This is the most clutch moment of all. Let’s see what he does with it.