This past week, I was speaking to a well-known journalist with a keen interest in all sports, including golf and soccer. I remarked to him how surprised I was at the manner of Manchester City’s first-leg defeat by Liverpool in the Champions League, despite their Premier League dominance all season, writes John McHenry.
“Why, Liverpool, much like Munster Rugby, have a proven pedigree when it comes to competing in European Cups,” he said.
It is part of their DNA and any player competing for those clubs on a European stage have an expectation to succeed, regardless of the higher-profile or indeed wealth of the opposition.
Yesterday, at the US Masters in Augusta, one of the most prestigious titles in the game of golf was again up for grabs. In with a chance of winning were names like Fowler, Rahm and Stenson, but the main show focused on just two gladiators. In one corner was the four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, the man with the ‘proven’ pedigree and seeking to become the first European golfer to win a career Grand Slam of major championships. In the other corner was a man seeking his own fame and glory, the Texan and five-time PGA Tour winner, Patrick Reed.
Reed is an interesting character. He’s stubborn and sometimes controversial, someone who has never been afraid to violate golf’s code of conduct, through his trash talking or wild, over-the-top celebrations, but he is also a streetfighter, a competitor who doesn’t back down, which he demonstrated in abundance when beating McIlroy in their high-octane Ryder Cup singles encounter at Hazeltine in 2016.
That said, since the final putt of the third round dropped on Saturday evening, Reed was in unknown territory. Having never held the 54-hole lead in a major championship, it can be expected that Saturday night’s sleep was regularly interrupted by an active mind trying to cope with the enormity of the opportunity he faced the following day.
Oh, to keep the mind quiet!
Just 18 more holes with a three-shot lead to fulfil one of the greatest ambitions in his career. He would back himself to deliver with those odds every day.
Yesterday, however, was no ordinary day and McIlroy is no ordinary golfer.
The game plan would have been easy, he just didn’t need to overthink it. Don’t go out there to play Rory. Don’t get too technical. Play the golf course and max out on the par 5s, as you have been doing all week. Play smart golf and force McIlroy to produce something extraordinary if he is going to challenge you.
Everything depended on his state of mind. He needed to control his own destiny and prevent McIlroy from influencing the all-important psychological battle where he held some trump cards.
1. Pedigree: McIlroy is a proven Major champion. He has overcome the hurdles Reed faced yesterday and that gave him an advantage. Starting out yesterday he would have fully believed that this was his time to complete his slam.
2. Intimidation: On form, there are few golfers in the world as intimidating as McIlroy and he knows it. To date, Reed has had the luxury of playing his own game away from the crazy energy that follows McIlroy around the course, but all that changed yesterday. Seeking his own glory, Reed would have to do it by ignoring McIlroy’s cold eyes, his intimidating proximity of the tee box and the type of ‘explosive’ momentum surges witnessed from him on the front nine holes on Saturday.
Classic mind games, but McIlroy’s respect for Reed’s competitiveness meant he would have known he wasn’t going to let his grasp on his first green jacket slip easily. If he faltered, McIlroy needed to be there to pounce. As good as he had looked last week, that probably meant producing the best round of his career.
For Reed, yesterday would have been the longest golfing day of his life. Knowing that golfers are judged on their individual successes and failures, nothing in his career to date could fully have prepared him for the experience he was about to face. He had to trust his natural instincts and keep a largely patriotic crowd on his side. The longer he could keep McIlroy at bay, the more he could surf the waves of American encouragement and pride.
For McIlroy starting out yesterday, he would have been in no doubt he was on enemy territory and that it was up to him to win the fans over during his quest for golfing immortality. His ‘proven pedigree’ would have enormously helped his cause.
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