ERIN, Wis. -- Patrick Reed was done with his 7-under 65 before a roar thundered across the heartland announcing Justin Thomas' closing eagle and record 9-under round. For some U.S. Open contenders, Thomas' 63 could have been the dagger through the heart that was Johnny Miller's 63 at Oakmont way back when.
For Reed, it was exactly what he wanted -- an invitation to a much more difficult Sunday fight.
Athletes are forever swearing they want to beat their foes at their best, but deep down, how many of them really mean it? Do they truly want the strongest available opponents performing at peak efficiency in a championship round, or would they honestly prefer an easier road to a ring ceremony and a parade?
Patrick Nathaniel Reed is one man who absolutely wants the world's top players to hit him with everything in their bags. He embraces conflict. He insists on full-pads engagement. He wants to destroy the destroyers, terminate the terminators, which was why he wanted a piece of Rory McIlroy in the Ryder Cup last fall.
Reed didn't merely want to defeat Europe and end an era of American misery in golf's signature international event. He wanted to break the visiting team at Hazeltine by breaking the Irishman who's already on record saying he wants to go down as the greatest European player of all time. McIlroy made that absurd 75-footer in their Sunday match and taunted the American fans by screaming and shouting and generally acting like a pro wrestling heel. Reed stepped up and dropped his 25-foot putt right on top of McIlroy's Hail Mary and then wagged his index finger at him, Dikembe Mutombo style.
McIlroy never quite recovered from Reed's response, and the American put him away to seal Europe's fate last fall. "We're all gutted," said the losing captain, Darren Clarke. The unanimous, if unofficial, MVP was Reed, who hopped on a plane with a 6-1-2 record in two Ryder Cups.
The U.S. had finally found its own Ian Poulter, and Reed was expected to finally place in the top 10 of a major for the first time. But then he missed the cut at the Masters and shot 75 in his second round at Erin Hills. Reed entered the U.S. Open having failed to finish in the top 10 of any tournament since January. It was a strange drought for someone who arrived as an indestructible force eight months ago.
"I think we've had a couple of tough times over the last couple of months," said Reed's wife, Justine. "But every time we go through tough times, I feel like he comes out a little bit better each time. So we have to go through some struggles, and I feel like it prepares him for the next level and phase in his life."
Justine Reed described these struggles as professional in nature, as the normal ups and downs of life on tour. Her husband suffered through kidney stones early this year and played through the pain. Suddenly it appears his game is back in Ryder Cup form. "He looks more like himself," Justine said. "For the last three months or so, I felt like he didn't look like himself out there."
Yes, Reed looked like he usually does when he dominates. He was wearing a white cap, red shirt and blue pants carrying the USA label. Reed had worn his Ryder Cup pants around the house but not in competition since the U.S. won at Hazeltine.
"It's awesome hearing the fans yelling 'USA,'" Reed said of the Erin Hills crowd. "I don't have a say in the wardrobe change. I have my wife, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, and they mainly tell me, 'This is what you're going to wear.' ... I just go out there, and when they decided red, white and blue this week, I was all for it. Just kind of bring back not only the patriotism, but also bring back some of that Ryder Cup feeling."
Reed fed off the crowd Saturday, made eight birdies, holed out a chip at No. 8, and just missed a short birdie putt at the 18th that would've given him the temporary sole possession of the lead at 9 under. His caddie, Kessler Karain, said he could feel "the electricity in the air" elevate his player's game to a higher place. Karain said his Sunday morning message to Reed will go something like this:
"Put a good round together like that again, you'll probably be hoisting that trophy."
Reed has five career victories to his name, and he will need to convert his team-play brilliance into the individual round of his life Sunday for No. 6. Is that possible?
"Good question," he said.
Reed came up with a pretty good answer.
"You're talking one-on-one competition against 155," he said. "And because of that, you can go out and play some great golf, but you have a bunch of guys out there that can play some good golf as well. I think the biggest thing is not getting ahead of myself. Every time I've been in majors so far, my first two years, I've put so much emphasis on them and tried so hard at them, that I kind of got in my way."
Reed will start Sunday 4 strokes off Brian Harman's lead and 3 strokes behind Thomas, whose amazing 3-wood on the closing hole was the stuff of legend, and the kind of shot that could make a contender buckle. In the end, Reed might not make up enough ground to win his first major. Or he might do to Harman and Thomas and Brooks Koepka what he did to McIlroy last fall.
Either way, Reed will approach the final round of the U.S. Open without fear. When he says he wants to face the best at their best, he's one athlete who actually means it.