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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

At the hero Dubai Desert Classic, drama on and off the course

By Paul Sullivan

Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed have a long history of dueling when it matters most. The rivalry has produced some epic golf matches, the most surprising of which may have been last year’s Hero Dubai Desert Classic, being played again starting on Thursday on the DP World Tour in the United Arab Emirates.

At the 2016 Ryder Cup, held at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota, McIlroy and Reed were also pitted against each other on the final day of singles matches.

The pair traded incredible shots on the front nine, but it was the interplay between them — finger wagging, shushing, cupping ears to rile up the crowd — that many remember. But in a sign of sportsmanship, the two fist-bumped walking off one green. Reed won the match on the 18th hole.

Two years later at the Masters Tournament, it was Reed and McIlroy battling again. It’s the one major that McIlroy still needs to win to complete the career grand slam. (He has won the U.S. Open, the British Open and, twice, the PGA Championship.)

Reed had led the tournament since the halfway mark, and in the final round McIlroy was three shots back. Reed won by one shot, six ahead of McIlroy.

Their rivalry had highly anticipated showdowns that were fierce and competitive.

Then came LIV Golf, and the sport splintered into two rival groups: the ones who went to the Saudi Arabia-backed league and those who stayed loyal to the established professional golf tours, the PGA and DP World Tours.

McIlroy became a player spokesperson for the PGA Tour, while Reed went to LIV and became part of the 4Aces GC, a team captained by Dustin Johnson.

Reed filed defamation lawsuits against the Golf Channel and several golf writers, but the lawsuits were dismissed and have been appealed. In McIlroy’s case, he received a subpoena on Christmas Eve 2022 when he was at home with his family — part of a lawsuit against the PGA Tour and DP World Tour filed by Reed’s lawyer, Larry Klayman.

At last year’s Hero Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy wasn’t interested in chatting with Reed on the practice range. (Reed flicked a tee at McIlroy after Reed said McIlroy refused to acknowledge him on the driving range.)

What was surprising was the intensity of the tournament, which came down to a duel between Reed and McIlroy.

Like its counterpart, the Sentry on the PGA Tour, the Hero is usually a collegial entry into the DP World Tour’s season. Dubai has created a family resort around the courses.

As the week advanced, McIlroy and Reed were circling each other in the tournament, and it was clear that the competition had taken on a bigger significance for McIlroy than a regular victory.

McIlroy had become the leading PGA Tour player voicing his anger against the players who had gone to LIV. In addition to Reed, McIlroy clashed with Greg Norman, the former world No. 1 who is LIV’s chief executive.

“I think Greg needs to go,” McIlroy said before the Hero. “I think he just needs to exit stage left.”

After the first three rounds of last year’s Hero, it looked like McIlroy was going to coast to victory. In the fourth round, with a four shot deficit, Reed got off to a hot start. At one point on the back nine he was briefly in the lead. McIlroy drew even after a birdie on the 17th hole.

Stepping up to the tee of the 18th hole, McIlroy needed a birdie to win. Hitting his third shot close, he watched the ball roll into the hole before letting out a roar. Reed had mounted a final round charge, but finished one behind McIlroy.

“Mentally, today was probably one of the toughest rounds I have ever had to play because it would be really easy to let your emotions get in the way,” McIlroy said at a news conference. “I just had to really focus on myself and forget who was up there on the leaderboard.”

He added: “This is probably sweeter than it should be.”

The victory had the heightened feel of their Ryder Cup duel. While LIV golfers had been stripped of their PGA Tour membership for joining the rival league, they were allowed to play while a court in England mulled whether the DP World Tour could ban them.

A year later, McIlroy is striking a different tone about LIV and its defectors. The shift came after his Ryder Cup teammate Jon Rahm joined LIV Golf at the end of 2023.

“Ultimately, you can say what you want and do what you want, but at the end of the day you’re not going to be able to change peoples’ minds,” McIlroy said on the “Stick to Football” podcast earlier this month. He continued, “I wouldn’t say I’ve lost the fight against LIV, but I’ve just accepted the fact that this is part of our sport now.”

He said that he was concerned about what the continued division in professional golf would mean for the sport and that he hoped Rahm would still be able to compete in the Ryder Cup. He added that he had been too judgmental of the men leaving to go to LIV.

“At the end of the day, we’re professional golfers and we play to make a living and make money, so I understand it,” he said. “But I think it’s just created this division that will hopefully stop soon.”

McIlroy’s manager, Sean O’Flaherty, said McIlroy was preparing for the Hero and did not have anything additional to add beyond what he said on the podcast. Reed declined to comment through his LIV representatives.

While one tournament does not dictate the tenor of a season, what made last year’s Hero interesting to watch was the battle between McIlroy and Reed coming down to the final hole. McIlroy is worried that such competitive battles will become rarer — confined to the majors — and hurt interest in the regular tour stops that rely on big names to draw fans.

With many stars and fan favorites gone to LIV, there is less opportunity outside the four majors for top players to compete. LIV, on the other hand, guarantees that its 48 players will be at every event.

“I think what LIV and the Saudis have exposed is that you’re asking for millions of dollars to sponsor these events, and you’re not able to guarantee to the sponsors that the players are going to show up,” McIlroy said on the podcast. “I can’t believe the PGA Tour has done so well for so long.”

Others agree. “I think if golf isn’t careful you get to the point where people say, I’m not that fired up to watch the Phoenix Open because Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Rahm are not there,” said Hughes Norton, the agent who negotiated Tiger Woods’ first deal with Nike and the author of the coming book, “Rainmaker: Superagent Hughes Norton and the Money-Grab Explosion of Golf From Tiger to LIV and Beyond.”

Already, longtime sponsors, including Honda and Wells Fargo, have pulled out of PGA Tour tournaments. And other sponsors are questioning the increased costs if their tournament is one of the eight signature events, which offer higher purses and guarantee that more elite players attend, but at a cost of an additional $7 million on top of the $13 million sponsor fee, Norton said.

“Maybe Wells Fargo said there are six big names who used to come to our events and now they’re not there,” he said. “Sponsors are restless now.”

If that’s the case, the sport needs more battles like last year’s Hero showdown.

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