A NEW AGE in golf began so innocuously in August 2013 that we hardly noticed.
It happened at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C. Newcomer Patrick Reed scored his first PGA Tour victory on the second playoff hole by hooking a crazy, low shot out of the trees to seven feet for a birdie. Reed's little-seen breakthrough moment came at the expense of some kid named Jordan Spieth.
Spieth bounced back, winning the 2015 Masters in record fashion. At the ripe old age of 21 he's America's new golfing superstar. Reed, 24, doesn't have his major yet, but like Spieth he seems destined for big things. He's already won four times, including the prestigious WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in March 2014, but he has earned at least as much attention for scraping through controversies.
Golf has long been starved for a rivalry. Tiger Woods never had one. With apologies to Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, the world's top-ranked player, a Reed-Spieth rivalry would be particularly delicious since they're both from Texas. (Feel the Ben Hogan--Byron Nelson vibe!) Spieth is a Dallas suburbanite, while Reed was born in San Antonio and raised in Houston and Baton Rouge.
Spieth has done his part to spice the competition, pouring in a 30-foot dagger to deliver belated payback by defeating Reed and Sean O'Hair on the third extra hole of the Valspar Championship in March, arguably this year's most exciting finish. "I don't know if it's really a rivalry yet," Reed said. "Maybe when we've been out here three, four or five years, and if we keep battling it out."
Reed makes this potential matchup appealing because he comes off—rightly or wrongly—as Darth Vader to Spieth's Luke Skywalker. Spieth is the clean-cut, oh-so-polite, all-American kid. Reed plays with passion and is so driven to win that at times he's a volcano that bubbles over.
He also can't keep his foot out of his mouth. When Reed won the Cadillac, he called himself a "top five player in the world." He may have meant that he believed he had the talent to be a top five player, but it came out as I am, not I could be, and that rubbed some veterans the wrong way.
"I don't regret anything I said," Reed noted in April. "You have to believe in yourself." Reed's brashness is a throwback to Raymond Floyd or Lanny Wadkins, who were good, knew it and were unafraid to say so.
Reed backed up his top five talk at last year's Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland, where he teamed with Spieth for three matches and emerged as one of the few American highlights. He compiled a 3-0-1 record that would've been a perfect 4--0 if he hadn't gassed a two-foot putt on the 16th hole of a Saturday-afternoon foursomes match that led to a halve instead of a win.
When he arrived at the 1st tee the next day to take on Henrik Stenson in a crucial early singles match, he heard about the miss from the partisan Gleneagles gallery: "Did you practice your putting, Patrick?"
All that did was stoke Reed. When he holed a birdie putt at the 7th hole, he held up one finger to his lips, shushing the crowd. While that's a common gesture at American football and basketball games, it was new to the Gleneagles fans and caused guest commentator Jack Nicklaus to blurt, "What in the world is he doing? He's going to incite a riot."
The gallery hounded Reed the rest of the day, and he appeared to relish the attention, scoring a 1-up victory over Stenson, who really is a top five player in the world (No. 5). The Americans lost, but Reed's "attitude" was a boost for a downtrodden U.S. squad that in past Ryder Cups had seemed mentally beaten before it began.
Last November, Reed found himself in the limelight again, and this time he angered more than Scottish fans. After missing a putt at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, he used a gay slur while admonishing himself. He quickly apologized, but the damage was done. And more bad publicity is on the way. A new book, Slaying the Tiger by Shane Ryan, alleges that Reed had issues in college with falsifying scores, stealing from teammates and drinking. (Reed denies all allegations.) Added to his weird family life—he is estranged from his parents to the point that his wife, Justine, allegedly had security escort them from the 2014 U.S. Open—it paints a picture of a player who is still trying to figure out some larger questions.
If he ever does, he may make good on that top five boast, because he knows how to win. He and Spieth are the first Americans since young Tiger and Phil who appear to have a knack for pulling off big shots at crucial times. But while Spieth does it with his dazzling short game and a putting stroke nearly as deadly as Ben Crenshaw's, Reed gets results with a game more about the sum of its parts. He's not a long hitter, but he's got power when he needs it. The stats say he's 134th in hitting greens and 91st in hitting it close, but he's 25th in scoring average (70.466). And as of Monday he ranked 14th in total strokes gained, a metric that measures a player's performance relative to his peers.
Reed has an excellent sand game too, and it was his scrambling prowess that kept him alive at Innisbrook in the showdown with Spieth. After that loss Reed was asked about how important it is to get a major early in his career, as Spieth has.
"That would be great," he said with a laugh. "Sign me up."
It may not be a long wait.
A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
PGA Tour wins by Reed, more than Spieth or Fowler.
For an exclusive video feature on Patrick Reed, or to watch any of the Rising Stars series presented by Symetra, go to SI.com/risingstars
Next week's 115th U.S. Open will be played at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash.
Michael Greller, Spieth's caddie, knows Chambers Bay—he used to caddie there. That could be a meaningful edge.
If he drives it well and cuts off some doglegs, he could make Chambers Bay look short and win a fifth major by a touchdown.
Almost 45 and still seeking that elusive U.S. Open title (he has finished second six times), this is probably Lefty's Last Stand.
A British links-style course could lead to a British champion, and Rose has been playing well since winning the 2013 Open at Merion.
The Puyallup, Wash., native lives 10 minutes away from Chambers, has hosted charity events there, and he's on a roll.
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ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SPIETH)
ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MICKELSON)
ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ROSE)
ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MOORE)
AL TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MCILROY)