For one cohort in a divided golfing world, Patrick Reed has become an identikit bogeyman. A divisive figure who is abrasive, brash and acerbic, he doesn’t seem to sweat the poor image too hard.
Regularly embedded in controversy and currently central to golf’s cultural and existential conflict between the PGA and LIV tours, the American’s caricature is playing along beautifully in a best supporting role to LIVers Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman.
On Monday Reed and Rory McIlroy’s worlds collided on the final day of the Dubai Desert Classic as they faced off in the final round. Not paired together, it didn’t matter.
That they were the only two players of interest went back to the Tuesday of last week when the game was forced to try to come to terms with what rates as a savage act of discourtesy from McIlroy on the driving range with Reed resorting to mindless violence.
As Reed sauntered over to McIlroy to make good the bonhomie of the tour, the Irishman hunkered down and studiously ignored the offer of a hand. Reed is one of those LIV players permitted to play on the DP World Tour due to a stay on suspensions imposed until a case comes before the UK’s Sport Resolutions on February 6th.
For the slight, Reed turned away and as he did flipped a branded tee towards the world number one. McIlroy said he never saw the timber. Video shows it was casually flicked at or towards him.
“I was subpoenaed by his [Reed’s] lawyer on Christmas Eve. Trying to have a nice time with my family and someone shows up on your doorstep and delivers that,” said McIlroy of the incident on the range afterwards.
“I’m living in reality. I don’t know where he’s living. If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t expect a hello or a handshake.”
Mickelson, normally engaged in the frontline skirmishes between the LIV and more traditional tours, took on an observational role. On Sunday, he praised McIlroy’s 7-under third round before adding the more telling caveat.
“See if he can finish,” Tweeted Lefty.
As the tournament rolled into Monday due to weather delays, the driving range snub, tee flicking, subpoena on Christmas Eve as well as the amazing flight of one of Reed’s errant shots that went up one tree and seemed to reappear in another, coalesced.
Over the weekend Reed had apparently identified his marked ball in the palm fronds in one tree with the aid of binoculars. While later slow motion footage appeared to show the ball landing in an entirely different tree, play resumed with just a one shot penalty for Reed rather than him having to go back to the tee to hit his third.
When the scores conflated as the endgame approached, the sense of animosity between the individuals and the rival tours inflated. It was advertising gold. The marketeers couldn’t have come up with a more lucrative storyline.
Going down the home stretch, thoughts turned to how epic it would be if the pair finished level and their repelling static was forced into the intimate proximity of a two man play-off.
Mickelson immediately saw the value and experienced his own minor epiphany. Instead of the PGA golfers and the LIV Tour rebels trying to make peace and coming to a reasonable compromise through gritted teeth, maintaining a bristling enmity seemed like a reasonable long-term strategy and easily the bigger draw.
“There’s a very good chance you’ll have more showdowns, more head-to-head competitions like you saw in Dubai and that would be a really good thing for the game,” he reasoned.
Golf already knew that – or should have from the Ryder Cup and Brookline. If not, they did now. Spectators have always known and seen through the intellectual dishonesty of faux rivalry and the choreographed face offs in boxing.
Fans have always been more intimately engaged when competition is meaningful, when there is something inherently bigger hanging on the outcome, more important than the trophy itself.
Bad blood can be offensive and inappropriate. It can be wounding and hurtful and occasionally illegal like the sectarian chants in Scottish football. But nor is sport blameless or always of perfect character. Not only can it accommodate bad blood but it can live off it and thrive on it.
“This is probably sweeter than it should be,” said McIlroy when he won.
Mickelson had a different world view. He saw venom and spice and a charged environment.
“It was great for the game to have that type of interest and it’s been interest throughout the globe,” he said. “In a couple of weeks, I expect the players, the LIV players, will win their case in the UK, and we’ll open the doors for all players to play on the European Tour.”
Last weekend in Dubai that LIV is not just a meritless easy landing at the end, middle or beginning of a golf career. Depending on how the courts see it in a few days, it has shown it might be of value to the PGA and DP World tours as a catalyst to stoke fires and generate competitive edge. Old firm derby-style.
Reed’s brash arrogance and polarising effect aside, there is the realisation that LIV is not just the old guard’s greatest threat but also its biggest motivator.