Jon Rahm began his year by winning two in a row on the PGA Tour. Rory McIlroy began his year with birdies on the last two holes to win in Dubai.
This would seem to have the look of golf’s latest rivalry in the making, except that it will be difficult to replace the rivalry golf already has.
It’s a rivalry between tours, not players.
That much was clear in Dubai when there was as much attention on McIlroy leading as the players who were chasing him.
That starts with Patrick Reed, a thorn in McIlroy’s side dating to that energy-draining Ryder Cup singles match at Hazeltine in 2016 that Reed won. Not to be forgotten is when they played in the final group of the 2018 Masters. Reed led by three and went on to win his lone major as McIlroy faded to a 74.
But at various times Monday during the final round in Dubai, a chunk of LIV’s roster was lined up behind McIlroy — Reed, Ian Poulter, Richard Bland, even Bernd Wiesberger made a push to get on the fringe of contention.
McIlroy’s star power is enough to carry any tournament. Reed plays the role of villain exceedingly well, and that made it even juicier. But no one was watching that production without thinking it was the establishment against the Saudi-funded newcomer.
It was like that at the U.S. Open last summer at Brookline, quiet chatter about which LIV player would have the best finish (Dustin Johnson tied for 24th).
Any other year, watching such talent as Rahm and McIlroy win early would prompt the tired phrase, “The Masters can’t get here soon enough.” This year is no different, only the anticipation goes beyond who’s playing well to who’s playing where.
Is that such a bad thing?
Players with LIV Golf are outsiders in the established world of golf. And it will be that way at the other three majors, though the Masters most likely will have the most LIV players (16) in the field.
The networks won’t want to talk about it. Everyone else will be thinking it.
The presumption is LIV players are no longer as motivated with so much money already in the bank, that they won’t be as sharp by competing over 54 holes with no cut against the same roster of players, many of them past their prime. What better place to prove otherwise, particularly since it will happen so infrequently?
The European tour next week goes before an arbitration panel in London that effectively will determine if LIV players can keep showing up. Then again, the European tour schedule is such that it likely won’t attract a strong field until the month leading up to the British Open.
LIV players are not allowed on the PGA Tour. That court case isn’t likely to be decided for at least another year.
McIlroy has been the loudest voice, at times sounding petty, such as when he subtly pointed out upon winning the Canadian Open that his victory moved him past LIV leader Greg Norman in career PGA Tour titles.
But he has put himself out there, and he has backed it up. Not only did McIlroy end last season as the FedEx Cup champion and eventually returned to No. 1 in the world, he delivered the goods on Monday in Dubai to beat a nemesis after an extraordinary week.
Yes, this was personal.
“I had to work really hard to forget about who was up there,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy had not competed in two months and said he was most proud of winning without his best stuff. Even so, the presence of Reed — it had to be Reed — made it look at times as though he had more to lose than to gain.
The week started ominously when Reed approached McIlroy on the range and got blanked, leading the American to casually flick a LIV tee in McIlroy’s direction and later call him an “immature little child.”
McIlroy, long a supporter of the toughness with which Reed plays, had reason to ignore him. He wasn’t happy about being served a subpoena on Christmas Eve, even though that was from a lawsuit with which Reed was not involved. The subpoena was part of a lawsuit filed by Larry Klayman against the PGA Tour and European tour. Call it guilt by association, for Reed hired Klayman to file two defamation lawsuits against the media.
They were sent off at roughly the same time on opposite sides of Emirates Golf Club for the opening two rounds, but they were never too far apart on the leaderboard. And if not for McIlroy making a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th to win, he would have faced Reed in a sudden-death playoff.
That would have dwarfed a Brooks Koepka-Bryson DeChambeau pairing back when golf only thought it had a nasty rivalry.
Of course, there was another side story in Dubai.
Henrik Stenson wound up in the same group as Luke Donald in the third round. Both were appointed Ryder Cup captain for Europe last year. Donald will be leading his team at Marco Simone in September. Stenson will be coming off a LIV event at Rich Harvest Farms in the Chicago suburbs, which once hosted a Solheim Cup.
Donald said it was just like any other round, and that’s probably true. That doesn’t mean the chatter will go away during the four majors. No one will one to talk about it. That doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it.