Only in golf does a quarter ounce tee thrown on a driving range count as an act of willful aggression. Then again, in golf alone can someone make $35 million in one year for just, well… golfing.
The brief ceasefire between golf’s belligerent families — PGA Tour players on one side, LIV Golf players on the other — is apparently over, and the first note in the latest verse of this very strange song has been aired at the Emirates Club driving range in Dubai. There Patrick Reed – of course Team LIV – approached Rory McIlroy, who took the de facto face of the PGA Tour. McIlroy pretended Reed didn’t even exist, and Reed left the scene after an awkward moment, throwing a tee in McIlroy’s direction as he left.
See for yourself. Reed greets McIlroy’s caddy (in a blue shirt) while McIlroy himself shows a sudden intense interest in his Trackman:
There’s a lot of backstory and prestory here, but first a reminder of what these two once shared.
In 2016, Reed and McIlroy were the undisputed top predators of their Ryder Cup teams, and for a few glorious holes in their singles match, they put on a head-to-head show that was literally as good as golf can get. McIlroy made a birdie on four straight holes… and Reed was even better than that. They threw long putts over each other, they enjoyed the cheers of the gallery, they watched the whole world as if they would own golf together for the next decade. Reed won the game by one hole and helped the US beat Europe for the Cup.
Then, well… things got sticky. Reed won the Masters in 2018; McIlroy teeded off next to him in Sunday’s final combination, but almost immediately knocked himself out of contention. Reed kept making headlines for all the wrong reasons, angering his fellow Ryder Cup teammates and ranting against PGA Tour rules officials. McIlroy continued to play well enough to win tournaments in almost every season… but is stuck with the same number of majors (four) he had back in that famous game. And he’s one Master win away from reaching the coveted career Grand Slam.
When LIV Golf blossomed from idle 19th-hole speculation to full threat to the PGA Tour last year, Reed was one of the first to jump to the breakaway tour. His attorneys spent much of the ensuing months filing defamation charges against a slew of targets, from the PGA Tour to television commentators to golf journalists to… Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy acknowledged that Reed subpoenaed him on Christmas Eve, which, as you might imagine, could put a damper on the holiday season. And that brings us to this week, and the driving range drama.
Golf Twitter has already subjected Reed’s Tee Toss to the full Zapruder movie treatment, and now both sides have expressed their views.
“Patrick came over to say hello and I didn’t want him to,” McIlroy said at a press conference afterwards. “That’s it. I didn’t see a T-shirt. I didn’t feel a tee. Apparently someone else saw that. I can’t believe it actually turned into a story. It’s nothing.”
Well, it is and it isn’t. More about that later.
“He saw me and he decided not to respond,” Reed told the Daily Mail. “It’s a shame because we’ve always had a great relationship… But it’s one of those things — if you’re going to act like an immature little kid, you might as well be treated like a kid.”
It’s unclear exactly what kind of response Reed thought he was getting from a player he apparently has an active lawsuit against. When asked if he saw the opportunity to “repair fences” with Reed, McIlroy didn’t even offer an answer, just an incredulous response:
Reed and McIlroy only play in the Hero Dubai Desert Classic because the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour) allows LIV players to compete. Otherwise, McIlroy and Reed – and all other PGA Tour and LIV players – will only cross paths at majors. And it is there, from Augusta in April, that this ongoing feud enters its next phase.
It’s highly unlikely that the Champions Dinner at the Masters will degenerate into fistfights, but with a number of high profile LIV players – including Reed, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson – alongside some of the PGA Tour’s most ardent advocates such as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, the atmosphere can get tense. (If Reed really wanted to jab McIlroy, he could have pointed out that McIlroy won’t be attending that particular dinner.)
The question going forward is whether the hostilities will continue, or whether the players on both tours will continue with, well…live and let LIV. Most players on both tours would certainly rather not deal with the headaches that come with both lawsuits and confrontations. But as long as aggressive types on both sides keep firing shots through the media — and as long as LIV critics continue to question the Saudi finances of the breakout tour — the two tours won’t simply coexist.
The LIV-PGA Tour battle is huge and complex, but it’s also about hurt feelings and perceived disrespect. How far will LIV go to keep pushing its points against the PGA Tour, and how far will the PGA Tour go to stop the stream of dropouts? The answers to those questions will determine whether TeeGate is a sneak peek or an outlier. After all, it’s much easier to ignore a tee than a subpoena.
Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.