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Rory vs. Grayson: A nearly forgotten exchange takes on new meaning—and turns golf on its head

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January 16, 2024

In one of the more notorious scuffles in the immediate wake of the June 6 “framework agreement,” Grayson Murray let loose on PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan in a players' meeting at the RBC Canadian Open. His exact words aren't clear, but they were something to the effect of, "We don’t trust you, Jay—you lied to our face."

That would be remarkable all on its own, but after a few more testy exchanges, Rory McIlroy—who had positioned himself as the tour's No. 1 defender and spokesman throughout the LIV schism—yelled back at Murray: "Just play better, Grayson."

Murray's rejoinder was about as simple as it gets: "F*** off."

In the moment, it would seem obvious that most sympathy would extend to McIlroy. Aside from Tiger Woods, Rory might be the most beloved golfer in the world (provided you're not a LIV Golf supporter), popular with fans, his peers and the media. Murray, on the other hand, was largely known for controversial tweets (political, golf-related and, uhhhh, personal), and before his recent return to top form, had taken time off from the pro golf to handle issues related to alcoholism and mental health. Interestingly, though, while accounts of the fallout from that exchange are limited, McIlroy's "just play better" taunt didn't necessarily go over well with every player. Many felt the same shock as Murray, and questions of trust with Monahan and his handling of the PGA Tour/PIF saga linger still today.

Regardless, the McIlroy-Murray spat seemed a flash-in-the-pan story, juicy but with no real legs and destined to be forgotten as the drama in professional golf only became more pronounced with summer turning to fall. But it was brought back to mind this past Sunday, when in the kind of happenstance that would seem too strange for fiction, both men found themselves in contention to win a tournament, albeit thousands of miles apart.

At the DP World Tour’s Dubai Invitational, McIlroy lived out a nightmare, with a three-putt from two feet on the 14th hole and a tee shot on 18 that hooked into the water. What looked like a win became a collapse, and Tommy Fleetwood stole the victory. Meanwhile, at the PGA Tour’s Sony Open in Hawaii, Murray made the right shots at the opportune moments, and buried a stunning 38-footer on the first playoff hole to win his first Tour event since 2017. ("Play better," indeed.)

Afterward, speaking to Todd Lewis, it was hard not to feel moved by the emotion Murray showed—and impressed by his resilience—as he described fighting through some very low moments, even if you weren't a Murray fan and even if you're still dubious about his character.

The fact that these two golfers commanded the day's biggest stages just a few hours apart is, of course, a cosmic accident. We shouldn't read into it very deeply on any level, karmic or otherwise, or we risk mis-defining a pure coincidence. But it does give us a chance to examine what these two golfers represent.

Beyond his personal foibles, and his personal redemption, Murray is a stand-in for the PGA Tour everyman, insofar as you can use that word to describe people playing a sport for millions of dollars. The 30-year-old from North Carolina is the quintessential "mule," the low impact player who feels he has been left behind as the tour combats LIV Golf by giving more and more to its top players. Even as purses have grown, the move toward smaller fields with no cuts in certain events has led players such as Murray to feel that opportunities have dried up and that they're being treated by their own organization as afterthoughts. (Murray is among a group of 20 tour members who signed a letter in December seeking more information about the investment proposals that the tour was reviewing.) When he told McIlroy to "f*** off," it probably resonated on a gut level for those like him who feel ignored as professional golf races for the dizzying heights.

And McIlroy, who was positioned perhaps incorrectly as the martyr carrying the tour's cross before being betrayed, has made out well for himself. His profile and his talent ensured that while the 34-year-old from Northern Ireland very much put himself out on a limb and likely subjected himself to stress that hurt his game, he wasn't about to emerge from the chaos with nothing. He still belonged to a class of athlete far beyond the Grayson Murrays of the world. The larger purses, the signature events, the surge in PIP money (in which McIlroy took first place), and the general flow of cash upward all benefited him, and along with leaders like Tiger, he had a major hand in creating them. (On the extreme side of the spectrum, there are emphatic quotes from current LIV players, including a former Ryder Cup teammate, essentially saying that Rory was out for himself just like they were, but that his money "came from the other side.") His defense of the tour, sincere as it was, came with opportunities even as he seems to be entering a reconciliation phrase, essentially saying that he's finished fighting the tide (having stepped down from the PGA Tour Policy Board), and positioning himself for whatever comes next.

That is what any intelligent person of his stature would do; there was real morality in the stance he took publicly while others were content to remain behind the camera, but there's an undeniable practicality, too. And it's a kind of practicality that isn't quite available to people like Grayson Murray, the forever outsiders, limited to shouting at men like Monahan, cursing at the upper crust, but increasingly without voice in the big fight of our time and ultimately dependent on the tour's mercies to secure their futures.

That's the realpolitik of the world as it exists in professional golf, and a reflection of forces that have seemed, for years now, inevitable. But what makes sport so fascinating is not the opaque business side, or class divisions, but the uncertainty of the game itself, and the meritocracy of the simple win and loss.

For one bizarre Sunday, the tenuous connection between these two players borne from a fleeting incident at a players meeting was carried forward onto the field of play, and the synchronicity was turned briefly on its head. Inevitability became uncertainty. And it was a reminder of the appeal of simple competitive drama, where who you love and who you hate can be rendered irrelevant in the face of the bracing knowledge that the McIlroys of the world don't always win, and the Murrays don't always lose.