Rory McIlroy’s Masters agony continued as he failed to spark and Patrick Reed held off Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth in an electrifying battle to claim the coveted green jacket at Augusta.
The fiery San Antonio native (27) showed his great mental strength, carding a final round 71 to win by one stroke on 15-under par from Fowler and two from Spieth, who lit up the Cathedral of Pines with a scintillating eight-under 64.
Nine behind overnight, Spieth’s final-round brilliance was only tarnished by a closing bogey that came when his final drive of the day clipped a branch in the chute of trees and went just 180 yards
In the end, Fowler birdied the 18th from seven feet for a 67 to get to 14-under and force Reed to par the last for victory. And he pulled it off in his inimitable style, bravely tickling a slippery 25-footer three feet past before tapping on for his maiden Major victory
It was drama of the highest order but another bitterly disappointing Masters Sunday for McIlroy (28), whose ball-striking prowess and putting touch deserted him when he needed it most and he spluttered to a 74 to finish six behind the winner, tied for fifth with Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson and the Australian Cameron Smith on nine-under.
Not only did he hit just eight greens in regulation, he missed six putts inside seven feet having made almost everything from that range over the first three days. As a result, his 74 was the only score over par by a player in the top 16.
Three shots behind Reed overnight, the Co Down man went out on one-over 37 and found himself four adrift of the 54-hole leader, tied for third with Fowler and Jon Rahm on 10-under par as Spieth raced into contention.
The Holywood star needed to make something happen on the back nine. But even when Reed bogeyed the 11th after a wild slice off the tee, he missed the green and bogeyed too, dropping back to fifth.
He found just four of the first 12 greens in regulation and when Reed rapped in a 22-footer to get back to 14-under at the 12th, it was clear he wasn’t going to be part of the shoot-out.
McIlroy needed an eagle at the 13th to reignite his bid, but he followed a two-putt birdie there with a three-putt bogey at the 14th to fall six behind and out of the script.
Afterwards, McIlroy attempted to be philosophical.
“I played probably some of the best golf I’ve ever played here, it just wasn’t meant to be. Of course it’s frustrating and it’s hard to take any positives from it right now but at least I put myself in a position, that’s all I’ve wanted to do.
“For the last four years I’ve had top tens but I haven’t been close enough to the lead. Today I got myself there, I didn’t quite do enough but I’ll still come back next year and try again.
“I think 100pc I can come back and win here. I’ve played in two final groups in the last seven years, I’ve had five top tens, I play this golf course well. I just haven’t played it well enough at the right times.
“The putter let me down a little bit, I just wasn’t quite as trusting as I was the first few days and that made a big difference.
“I think when you’re playing in the final group in a Major there’s always going to be pressure, but when I parred the first that settled me down so it wasn’t as if nerves got to me. I just didn’t quite have it.”
Spieth (above) certainly looked like he “had it” until the final hole when he bogeyed to set the target at 13-under, Reed was two ahead and only concerned about Rahm and Fowler. The Spaniard’s title bid ended when he found water with his approach to the 15th and while Fowler was just two behind with two to play, the Californian’s 67 good enough to pip Spieth for outright second.
The frisson of excitement that accompanied the leaders to the first tee was justified with a thundering front nine replete with enough Masters drama to fill a dozen highlight reels.
Their first hole was worth at Netflix series of its own – Reed’s three-wood almost finishing stymied behind a pine tree before McIlroy’s attempted Exocet with the driver sailed so far into the trees that he wondered if he should hit a provisional ball.
He miraculously remained in bounds and even finished in a clearing, eventually finding greenside sand from where he splashed out to six feet and made par as Reed also found sand but thinned his bunker shot and bogeyed.
It was just one of seven scoring exchanges between them in their first seven holes and as they battered each other to an emotional standstill, the chasing pack made up ground with Spieth the hottest of them all, racing to the turn in 31 before ratting in four birdies in five holes on the back nine to move into a share of the lead. McIlroy’s lethargy was evident from the start. He had a chance to gain two shots at the par-five second following 371-yard drive and a scything approach to just four feet. But he missed the eagle putt and while Reed saw his lead trimmed to just one, it was back to three one hole later.
McIlroy’s wedge play was to blame as he spun off the third green and failed to get up and down as Reed rammed in a 15 footer for birdie to get back to level for the day.
Every hole was a mini-drama and little of it was of the exciting brand as far as McIlroy was concerned until the putting touch that had served him so well for the first three days deserted him in his hour of need.
After a bogey at eight, McIlroy was four behind and becoming a bit player as Spieth, Fowler and Rahm chased the leader. For McIlroy, none of them ever came within striking distance.