Only in golf does a quarter-ounce tee tossed on a driving range count as an act of wanton aggression. But then again, only in golf can someone earn $35 million in a single year for just, well … playing golf.
The brief holiday ceasefire between golf's warring families – PGA Tour players on one side, LIV Golf players on the other – is apparently over, and the first note in the newest verse of this very strange song aired on the driving range at the Emirates Club in Dubai. There, Patrick Reed – Team LIV, of course – approached Rory McIlroy, who has become the de facto face of the PGA Tour. McIlroy acted as if Reed didn't even exist, and Reed, after an awkward moment, left the scene, tossing a tee in McIlroy's direction as he left.
Here, watch for yourself. Reed greets McIlroy’s caddy while McIlroy himself takes a sudden intense interest in his Trackman:
There’s plenty of backstory and frontstory here, but first, a reminder of what these two once shared.
Back in 2016, Reed and McIlroy were the undisputed apex 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 gets. McIlroy birdied four straight holes … and Reed was even better than that. They poured in long putts atop one another, they reveled in the gallery’s cheers, they looked for all the world like they would own golf together for the next decade.
Then, well … things got sticky. Reed won the Masters in 2018; McIlroy teed off beside him in the final Sunday pairing but almost immediately shot himself out of contention. Reed kept ending up in headlines for all the wrong reasons, angering his fellow Ryder Cup teammates and running up hard against PGA Tour rules officials. McIlroy continued to play well enough to win tournaments in almost every single season … but remains stuck on the same number of majors he had back during that famous duel.
When LIV Golf bloomed from idle 19th-hole speculation to full-on threat to the PGA Tour last year, Reed was one of the earliest to jump to the breakaway tour. His lawyers have spent much of the ensuing months filing defamation suits against a whole range of targets, from the Tour to television commentators to golf journalists to … Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy acknowledged that Reed had served him with notice of a lawsuit on this past Christmas Eve, which, as you might imagine, could put a damper on holiday celebrations. And that brings us right up to this week, and the driving range drama.
Golf Twitter has already subjected Reed’s Tee Toss to the full Zapruder film treatment, and now both parties have weighed in.
“Patrick came up to say hello and I didn't really want him to,” McIlroy said in a press conference afterward. “That was it. I didn't see a tee. I didn't feel a tee. Obviously someone else saw that. I can't believe it's actually turned into a story. It's nothing.”
Well, it is and it isn’t. More on that in a moment.
"He saw me and he decided not to not to react," Reed . "It's unfortunate because we've always had a good relationship … But it is one of those things—if you're going to act like an immature little child then you might as well be treated like one."
It’s unclear exactly what kind of reaction Reed thought he ought to get from a player against whom he’s apparently pursuing active litigation.
Reed and McIlroy are teeing it up in the Hero Dubai Desert Classic only because the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour) is permitting LIV players to compete. Otherwise, McIlroy and Reed – and all the other PGA Tour and LIV players – will only cross paths at majors. And it’s there, starting at Augusta, that this ongoing feud will enter its next phase.
It’s highly unlikely the Champions Dinner at the Masters will devolve into fistfights, but with several prominent LIV players in attendance – including Reed, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson – alongside some of the PGA Tour’s most staunch advocates, such as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, the atmosphere could get tense. (If Reed had really wanted to jab McIlroy, he could have pointed out that McIlroy won’t be at attendance at that particular dinner.)
The question going forward is whether hostilities will continue, or whether the players on both tours will continue to, well … live and let LIV. Most players on both tours would surely prefer not to deal with the headaches that accompany both litigation and confrontation. But as long as aggressive types on both sides continue to fire shots through the media – and as long as critics of LIV continue to question the breakaway tour’s Saudi finances – the two tours won’t simply coexist.
The LIV-PGA Tour battle is vast and complex, but it’s also about hurt feelings and perceived disrespect. How far will LIV go to continue pressing its points against the PGA Tour, and how far will the PGA Tour go to stem the flow of defections? The answers to those questions will determine whether TeeGate is a preview or an outlier. After all, it’s a whole lot easier to ignore a tee than a subpoena.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.