VIRGINIA WATER, England – Billy Horschel paused on his way to the sprawling clubhouse at Wentworth Monday to talk with Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood. Under normal circumstances it would have been an easily forgettable scene.
These are not normal circumstances.
The extremes in professional golf crash into each other this week in a singularly complex and contentious moment. On one side, the likes of Horschel, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm who have all pledged their fealty to the PGA Tour and the status quo. On the other, Westwood, Poulter and more than a dozen others who pledged their allegiance to flush bank accounts and a Saudi-backed startup unlike any other.
The BMW PGA Championship is not the first time the two sides of the LIV Golf divide have shared the same tee sheet, but it does feel like the most significant. Even at the Scottish Open in July, after a judge granted three players a stay that allowed them to participate in the co-sanctioned event, the bitterness and vitriol hadn’t reached this level.
This is different because it’s personal, for everyone, and it’s nuanced, for many.
For Horschel, the 18 LIV players in this week’s field at the BMW PGA Championship, which the American won last year, is an unacceptable insult.
“Even though Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter have been stalwarts for the European tour, I don't think those guys really should be here,” Horschel said Tuesday at Wentworth. “I honestly don't think that the American guys who haven't supported the PGA Tour should be here. The Abraham Ancer[s], the Talor Gooch[es], the Jason Kokraks [Kokrak withdrew from the BMW PGA]; you've never played this tournament, you've never supported the DP World Tour. Why are you here?
“You are here for one reason only and that's to try to get world ranking points because you don't have it. It's hypocritical because of what some of these guys have said this week when they said they wanted to play less golf. It's pretty hypocritical to come over here and play outside LIV when your big thing was to spend more time with family and want to play less golf.”
It's a fair point. Gooch has previously played in exactly zero regular DP World Tour events. Ancer has played in four European circuit tournaments and never the BMW PGA Championship before this week.
This is where things get nuanced. In some minds, there are layers to this week’s treachery. Regarding the likes of Poulter and Westwood and a handful of others, players who have always supported their home tour, there is a level, however begrudged, of acceptance. Regarding Gooch, Ancer & Co., it feels like a cheap grab for world ranking points or, as it relates to others, even worse - European Ryder Cup points, which start counting this week for next year’s matches.
For Rahm, this is the reality he struggles to reconcile.
“I think the PGA Tour will and can honestly survive without some big players. But the European tour, there are many key players that have been key for European tour golf and the Ryder Cup that have a lot of collective years on the European tour; that them coming, I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing,” Rahm said. “What I don't understand is some players that have never shown any interest in [the] European tour, have never shown any interest in playing this event, being given an opportunity just because they can get world ranking points, and hopefully make majors next year.”
Rahm went on to explain that a friend and European tour member, Alfredo Garcia-Heredia, didn’t qualify for this week’s tournament, the DP World Tour’s flagship event, because of the LIV players in the field.
“They [LIV players] don't know. They don't care. They don't know the history of this event,” Rahm continued. “They are only here because they are trying to get world ranking points.”
But this is also where it gets nuanced. In the fractured world of professional golf, it has become increasingly difficult to paint all players with the same brush. Perhaps Gooch and Ancer made opportunistic decisions to play this week’s event, but there are others who have made a commitment to the European circuit. Players like Poulter and Westwood and Patrick Reed. That’s right, P-Reed, Captain America and Continental Europe's great antagonist in the Ryder Cup.
Reed is playing the BMW PGA for the third time and an examination of his record suggests he qualifies, like Poulter and Westwood, as someone who deserves the benefit of the doubt on this front.
“How many European events has he played?” asked Rahm, who was told Reed has played 23 regular DP World Tour events in his career, to which Rahm allowed, “more than me.”
Reed was a polarizing figure long before LIV Golf landed liked a 350-yard drive and it’s easy to box him in as “them,” but by Rahm’s own definition perhaps Reed’s earned the right.
As he teed off Tuesday in a grey mist, Reed said he never considered withdrawing from the event because of the ongoing LIV Golf divide.
“Being a guy who has fully supported this tour as an American - during COVID year when these guys were really struggling, I made an effort to travel to come over and play. A lot of guys stayed home because of COVID, but I wanted to show my support,” Reed told GolfChannel.com. “It would be no different for me not to come over and play their biggest event.”
The sides will be clearly drawn this week because that’s the easiest path – good vs. evil, right vs. wrong – but like everything else in this season of turmoil, it’s much more complicated than that.