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 National.
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 by 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 that leads from the 18th tee 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 in for par, his maiden major victory and a move to 11th in the world.
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.
“I played probably some of the best golf I’ve ever played here, it just wasn’t meant to be," McIlroy said. "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 100% 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.
“I can’t give a good answer as to what I can take from this into the future because I’m just off the 18th green but I’ll sit down and reflect over the next few days and see what I could have done better.
"Whether it be mindset or whatever, I just didn’t quite have it today. I played some great golf today, but I just didn’t continue that into today.
“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 was trying to hit good shots and good putts and anytime I felt like I hit a good shot I got myself on the wrong side of the pin or gave myself a tricky one down the hill."
“Then when I did get some chances I didn’t take advantage of them, but yeh it was a tough day and hopefully I’ll be better next time."
Three shots behind Reed overnight, the Co Down man went out on one-over 37 and found himself four behind 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 shootout.
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.
When Spieth bogeyed the last 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 68 was only good enough for a share of second with Spieth on 13-under.
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.
While he rifled his tee shot to four feet and made two at the fourth, he mishit his approach to the fifth, chipped to four feet and missed the putt to fall three behind again
The putting touch that had served him so well for the first three days deserted him in his hour of need and while Reed handed that shot back by three-putting the sixth from the front edge, he birdied the seventh to restore his cushion.
McIlroy's ball striking is his strength but he carved his drive into trees at the eighth and, forced to chip out, eventually missed a seven-footer for par.
He was now four behind and becoming a bit players as Spieth, Fowler and Rahm raced through the front nine and into Amen Corner.
When McIlroy missed a nine footer for birdie at the ninth, he was tied for third with Fowler and Rahm on 10-under par. But there would be no back nine fireworks.
Spieth birdied the first, second, fifth, eighth and ninth to get to 10 under, then rolled in 27-footer for a two at the 12th that cost him a quadruple bogey seven and his second successive Masters in 2016.
It all came down to the back nine on Sunday and bar McIlroy's dour display, it didn't disappoint.
“The putt on two I still made birdie and after where I was off the tee on one, I would have taken one under after two," McIlroy said. "It was more giving that birdie away on three and obviously birdieing four was huge but then I gave that away on five.
“It was like every time I took a step forward I took a step back on the next hole. I had a chance to maybe put a bit more pressure on him than I did and I’d say three and five are the ones that I’d look back on and if I could have made pars there it could have been a different story.
“I had a decent warm-up, I hit a bit of a shaky drive on the first but I got a good up and down for par. I hit some good shots out there, I feel like momentum is a huge thing, especially in final rounds. You look at what Jordan and Rickie did, they got on a roll and I just didn’t.
“Patrick and I, we were in and around even par and were just grinding out there and it wasn’t quite what we both had in mind, he just hung in there a little better than I did and got the job done.
“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.”
“I knew it was going to be tough. Any time trying to close off a golf tournament is really hard, but to close off your first Major and to do it at a place that is so close to me.
“I knew that the lead was going to shrink at some times, I knew the lead could grow, it's just the flows of golf. You just have to know how to handle it and the only way I felt like I could get that done was to make sure the putter was working.
“It was tough out there but to be able to make that putt on 14 and then to make the two-putt on 17, it just gave me that momentum going to 18 which in the past has given me so many issues.
“It's almost impossible to put into words. Just to make the par on the last and watch the ball go in the hole and know that I've won my first Major. One of my huge goals this year was to not only contend in Majors but also get back in that winning circle. To do it in the first Major and finish off that drought, it just meant so much to me.”
“It was a great week to get ourselves in the mix and to have a strong weekend, unlike last week. I feel like we got the boxes checked that we wanted to last week in Houston coming into here at Augusta, and I was ready to go win. Unfortunately, I was one shot short, but we were able to keep P‑Reed honest out there, at least making him earn it.
“I mean, solo second feels and sounds better than tied for second, so it was nice to edge out Jordan on the last.
“Obviously I’m happy for him. We've played a lot of junior golf together and we've been on some great teams together, Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. Sure, it would have been a lot more fun to beat him, but I'm happy with what we did here. Like I said, a step in the right direction.
“We haven't been having the best weekends as of late, so to put ourselves in contention and to put together a nice weekend of 65-67, especially here, I'm happy about that.”
“The first time I saw the leaderboard was after I tapped in on 18, honest to God. I didn't look once today. That was my plan going in. I'm nine back, go out and just have fun, don't worry about the golf tournament itself, worry about playing Augusta National. I heard roars. I knew somebody was playing well.
“With eight people ahead of me starting the day, to get that much help and shoot a fantastic round was nearly impossible. But I almost pulled off the impossible. I had no idea. When I finished and I looked at the board I could have been in the lead by two and I could have been down four. And neither one would have surprised me.
“It was nice. I look back, and, man, I did everything right. The two days prior, too, and the lid was just on the hole. And then guys have chipped in for eagle, balls have stayed out of the water, there’s hit pins when they’re going off the green. When you win, you get these kind of breaks and it's happened to me every single time I've won. And you get a break or two throughout the golf tournament that could be a game changer.”
“There weren't many downs today. The only down I would say is the second shot on 15. It's sad, because I played so good the last three days and that one shot where I feel like I made a perfect swing and it wound up in the water.
“It’s just hurtful. It’s actually two of them, 13 yesterday and today on 15. Besides that, I think I handled myself really well. I played good golf, gave myself plenty of opportunities. I wish I would have made a couple more putts, but it is what it is, it's hard to win a Major Championship.”
Masters Tournament, Augusta National GC (Par 72)
273 P Reed (USA) 69 66 67 71,
274 R Fowler (USA) 70 72 65 67,
275 J Spieth (USA) 66 74 71 64,
277 J Rahm (Esp) 75 68 65 69,
279 R McIlroy (Nir) 69 71 65 74, H Stenson (Swe) 69 70 70 70, B Watson (USA) 73 69 68 69, C Smith (Aus) 71 72 70 66,
280 M Leishman (Aus) 70 67 73 70,
281 D Johnson (USA) 73 68 71 69, T Finau (USA) 68 74 73 66,
282 J Rose (Eng) 72 70 71 69, L Oosthuizen (RSA) 71 71 71 69, C Hoffman (USA) 69 73 73 67,
283 R Henley (USA) 73 72 71 67, P Casey (Eng) 74 75 69 65,
284 T Fleetwood (Eng) 72 72 66 74, J Thomas (USA) 74 67 70 73,
285 H Matsuyama (Jpn) 73 71 72 69,
286 W Simpson (USA) 76 73 70 67, F Molinari (Ita) 72 74 70 70, J Day (Aus) 75 71 69 71, J Walker (USA) 73 71 71 71,
287 A Hadwin (Can) 69 75 72 71, B Grace (RSA) 73 73 74 67, S Kim (Kor) 75 73 68 71, B Wiesberger (Aut) 70 73 72 72,
288 R Moore (USA) 74 72 72 70, S Kodaira (Jpn) 71 74 71 72, M Kuchar (USA) 68 75 72 73, K Kisner (USA) 72 75 69 72,
289 A Scott (Aus) 75 73 70 71, D Berger (USA) 73 74 71 71, H Li (Chn) 69 76 72 72, T Woods (USA) 73 75 72 69,
290 Z Johnson (USA) 70 74 74 72, P Mickelson (USA) 70 79 74 67,
291 F Couples (USA) 72 74 73 72, R Cabrera Bello (Esp) 69 76 74 72, J Vegas (Ven) 77 69 72 73, B Dechambeau (USA) 74 74 72 71, M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 75 74 67 75, B Langer (Ger) 74 74 71 72,
292 B Harman (USA) 73 74 76 69, T Hatton (Eng) 74 75 73 70, I Poulter (Eng) 74 75 74 69, K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 79 70 72 71,
294 M Kaymer (Ger) 74 73 74 73,
295 V Singh (Fij) 71 74 79 71,
296 X Schauffele (USA) 71 78 72 75, D Ghim (am) (USA) 72 76 74 74,
297 K Stanley (USA) 72 74 75 76,
298 C Reavie (USA) 76 71 75 76