Rory McIlroy’s 16-month wait for a win will have to continue as he came up one-shot shy of winner Haotong Li at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
The world-number-11 found himself in a commanding position with nine holes remaining but two bogeys on the back-nine put Li in the driving seat as he became the first Asian player to win this event.
Last year McIlroy endured his first winless year since breaking through full-time and slipped out the world’s top 10 for the first time since 2010, but took time out to work on his game and has come back fighting.
The 28-year-old made his first appearance in over 100 days at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last week and looked to threaten before ending in a tie for third.
The Northern-Irishman’s second week back was the event of his first win in 2009 and his 15th in 2015, as he looked to go a few better than the week before.Embed from Getty Images
McIlroy started the day one shot behind the overnight leader Haotong Li but an opening bogey for the latter brought McIlroy straight into a tie at the top.
The pair then both took birdies on the third to move to 20-under-par and four ahead of the chasing pack, making it as good as a two-horse race within the opening three holes of the final round.
Alexander Levy ensured that was not the case though with back-to-back birdies on the sixth and seventh, the second thanks to sinking a 50-foot birdie putt, to get to within two of the leaders.
McIlroy and Li matched each other virtually shot-for-shot for the remainder of the front-nine and both made the turn at 21-under-par, three shots ahead of Tyrrell Hatton who now sat alone in third.
The back nine had been a playground for McIlroy all week having been 15-under for it through three rounds. Three par fives coming in it would provide a real advantage for McIlroy.
That advantage showed immediately as on the par-five 10th McIlroy set up an eagle putt as he watched Li struggle to a bogey. The eagle pull fell short but a birdie ensured a two-shot swing as he moved to 22-under-par, and Li fell to 20-under.Embed from Getty Images
His lead was reduced to one with a bogey on the next hole, though, after an aggressive tee-shot caught him in a bunker. The 12th then brought about a change of second place. A second bogey in three holes for Li dropped him to 19-under as Hatton secured a fourth birdie in six holes to move to 20-under par as McIlroy’s nearest challenger.
McIlroy failed to take advantage of the next par five only managing par whilst Li scrambled a birdie to move back into a tie for second with Hatton one behind the lead.
After pars apiece for the final group on the 14th, Li sunk a tricky birdie putt from off the green on the par three 15th to rejoin McIlroy at the summit of the leaderboard with just three holes remaining.
In need of at least a birdie on the 18th to challenge, Hatton found the water and would have to settle for a par and resign his push for the title.
As Hatton’s challenge capitulated, McIlroy’s took a significant blow as he failed to recover from a wayward drive into wasteland and followed that with a pitch out into deep rough across the fairway. From his initial position a after two shots a bogey would have been welcomed. Li failed to capitalise on a birdie putt but would find himself in an outright lead as McIlroy fell back to 20-under.
McIlroy and Li mirrored each other with birdies on the 17th and headed to the 72nd hole of the tournament with one shot to separating them. A perfect drive on the 18th set McIlroy up well as Li’s sat down in the left-hand rough.
Li elected to lay up as McIlroy made the green in two. The former’s eventual approach was sublime and a 10-foot birdie putt made McIlroy’s irrelevant as he clinched his second European Tour title.Embed from Getty Images
There was no win on his second event back for McIlroy but it was a second consecutive top three as he looks in shape to ensure 2018 does not match 2017.