A softened Augusta National Golf Club surrendered near-record scores on Sunday, but Patrick Reed stood his ground, shooting a 1-under 71 and retaining his third-round lead to win the 2018 Masters Tournament.
What had been billed as a virtual match-play situation between Reed and his final-round playing companion Rory McIlroy never materialized. Rickey Fowler and Jordan Spieth each used sparkling shot making to apply significant pressure to the leader, but Reed clung to his lead for the entirety of Sunday’s round. Fowler finished in second place alone at 14-under par, while Spieth’s 13-under total was good for solo third.
When Reed teed it up Sunday afternoon clutching a thee-shot lead, it seemed doubtful that 1-under golf would net him a Green Jacket. He could not have imagined that his toughest challengers would come from five and nine shots back. But, England’s Paul Casey was already on a back-nine tear as Reed began play, flirting with a course record and hinting at the day’s potential.
Casey had a legitimate opportunity to tie the record-setting 63 Nick Price carded in 1986, which Greg Norman matched a decade later. Casey would finish with consecutive bogeys and a score of 65, just one stroke short of the incomprehensible round of 64 that Spieth compiled.
Fowler finished one shot shy of an improbable victory, and Spieth was just two strokes short of a miracle.
McIlroy had Reed’s attention early on Sunday, making par on the 1st hole to Reed’s bogey, then carding a birdie on the second hole to Reed’s par. As the pair stood on the tee at the 3rd hole, Reed’s cushion had all but vanished, and the lead was down to a single stroke. But, Reed would make and improbable birdie on the par-4, while McIlroy bogeyed. Reed’s breathing room had returned, and McIlroy would never truly challenge him again. McIlroy finished another disappointed Masters Sunday T-5 at 9-under par.
When Spieth dropped an improbable 20-footer for birdie on the 16th hole to get to 14-under par, he had caught Reed from a position no one thought possible. A nine-shot Masters comeback seemed to legitimately be in the making. “Are you kidding me?” he could be seen asking his caddie after the putt found the bottom of the cup, proving that not even he believed what he was doing.
Reed answered Spieth with a birdie on the par-3 12th, a hole which has been the ruin of many would-be Masters champions over the years. It was evident in his reaction how badly he wanted it. If his challengers had hoped to get in his head, those hopes were in vain.
Reed settled for par on the par-5 13th, but he stuffed his approach from the middle of the 14th fairway, leaving himself a makable, short-range birdie opportunity. He made his putt as a retort to a charging Spieth, who was at that moment stalking a par putt of his own on the 17th green. Spieth made the putt, and Reed’s lead was back to one stroke.
Meanwhile, Fowler was unassumingly becoming Reed’s most pressing problem.
Fowler had flown under the radar all week, but his quiet birdies on the 12th, 13th and 15th holes had left him trailing Reed by just two shots, and just a single stroke behind Spieth.
Fowler found the greenside bunker on the iconic par-3 16th, though, short-siding himself and putting pressure on his short game to keep him in the hunt. He played an artistic sand shot long and left, stealing some roll from the steep undulations beyond the hole. His ball rolled back to tap-in range, keeping Fowler’s hopes alive.
Standing over his tee ball at the dogleg-right 18th hole, Spieth had history right in front of him for the taking. A birdie would have set a new course record and, as it turned out, forced a playoff. Under such enormous pressure, Spieth yanked his tee shot left, crashing it into a tree. His stunted drive left him short of the fairway, 315 yards from the green on the par-4, with some 150 yards left just to make the corner.
A deflated Spieth took his medicine, cutting his layup shot around the dogleg and leaving himself a wedge to the hole. His approach shot grabbed on the green, backing up to just under the cup. He still had a putt for the best Sunday round in Masters history, but his chance for a second Green Jacket had passed.
Spieth hit his par putt exactly where he was looking, but he simply borrowed too much break. The ball stayed out to the left, passing the hole and cushioning Reed’s lead as it trundled. The leader then held a tenuous two-stroke advantage over both Spieth and Fowler with three holes to play.
Spieth’s bogey on the closing hole gave him a 64 total, which tied him for the second-lowest score in Masters history.
Reed got through the treacherous par-3 16th hole with a par, but his approach on 17 ended up on the fringe across the green from the hole. Reed’s putting had been otherworldly all week, and this effort was more of the same. The ball jammed into the back of the hole, and it may have dropped had Reed elected to remove the flagstick. It was a brilliant effort, but the result left Reed with a five-foot par putt, which he sank.
Fowler played the 18th hole the best out any of the players in the top three. His towering approach shot barely moved out of its pitch mark, leaving him an uphill putt of six feet for birdie. The roll was true, and the ball fell in to thunderous applause.
With Fowler having posted a 14-under total, Reed was the only person left on the golf course who could affect the outcome. His tee shot on 18 flirted with the pine tree that had sunken Spieth’s Masters dreams, but Reed’s ball whizzed by it harmlessly. Now in the fairway with a one-stroke cushion, Reed needed only avoid self-destruction. His crisp approach pitched slightly left of the pin, rolling out to leave him a touchy, downhill putt for par and glory.
Though he gave his ball only the slightest nudge, it still rolled three feet past the hole – likely the longest yard he has ever seen. Reed, who has never been accused of lacking self-confidence, stood expressionless over the ball. He looked no different than he had on any other putt that day, but this one was different. This was not the proverbial putt to win the Masters; this was the real deal.
Reed’s comebacker was flawless. As the ball rattled in the bottom of the cup, he threw the obligatory fist-pumping celebration. Then, a look that somehow expressed both exhausted relief and childlike joy crept across Reed’s face. His job was done.
That expression remained as the champion sat in Butler Cabin, and it remained until Sergio Garcia placed the Green Jacket on his shoulders for the first time. Then – and only then – Reed finally let out an audible sigh. He had survived. Sunday had been a battle royale, and he was the last man standing. Reed’s first major championship would be the 2018 Masters.