Haotong Li Holds Off Rory McIlroy to Triumph in Dubai
Li Haotong produced a stunning fightback on the back nine to hold off Rory McIlroy at the Emirates Golf Club and claim the Dubai Desert Classic in a thrilling climax to a memorable week. He had started the day one ahead of the Northern Irishman but trailed by two after 10 holes before McIlroy faltered. The Chinese golfer birdied four of his last six holes to beat McIlroy by a shot with a tournament record score of 23 under par. It was Li’s second title, and it will not be his last. He has now moved up to 32nd in the world rankings, with McIlroy climbing back into the top 10.
McIlroy drew level with 22-year-old Li on the first when the Chinese golfer dropped a shot – it was just his third bogey of the week, along with a double-bogey six at the opening hole on day two.
Nobody, it seemed, had bothered to tell the field that this is actually meant to be a difficult golf course – 69 players made the cut, which fell at four under par, and not a single one of them finished the week over par. Richie Ramsay, of Scotland, was one of the early starters and reduced the course to 64 blows, moving through the field from 49th place to finish the tournament on 16 under par. At that point he was three behind the leaders, with Alexander Levy, of France, in third place on 17 under.
Li, a former winner of the China Open, raced his birdie putt at the second hole three feet past the hole but if he was feeling any nerves he didn’t show them, rolling it home for a par. McIlroy has made a superb return to the game. In finishing third at the Abu Dhabi Championship last week he recorded just three bogeys in 72 holes and during the opening three rounds in Dubai there had only been three more. And he has been making birdies and eagles for fun. It all augurs well for the rest of the year – remember that he is still ring rusty after finishing last season at the Dunhill Links Championship in October. He promised that when he returned he would be back to his best, and he has lived up to his word – and then some.
With the sun beating down and the wind blowing, the greens were starting to firm up and the later starters were struggling to get the ball close. It seemed that the key would be the par fives. And both Li and McIlroy duly picked up shots at the par-five third, McIlroy requiring only a seven iron for his second shot. They were both now 20 under par and four ahead of the chasing pack after Levy dropped a shot at the fourth. Levy, Ramsay, Dylan Frittelli, Jeunghan Wang, Tyrrell Hatton, Andy Sullivan, Chris Hanson and Chris Paisley, continuing his incredible run of form, were all tied on 16 under. Like Ramsay, Hanson had rocketed through the field with a 65.
Wang, winner of the Qatar Masters last year, is also in a rich vein of form, having dropped just two shots all week as he began the final round. The South Korean has struggled since his win 12 months ago but has clearly rediscovered his touch. Moments later the players on 16 under were joined by the remarkable Miguel Angel Jimenez. The Spaniard may be 54 years old but he still looks at home in this company and confirmed it with birdies at the second and seventh, followed by an eagle at the 10th. Sadly, he found the water at the 18th and dropped a shot to finish his week on 15 under. Jason Scrivener, of Australia, was next to join the logjam on 16 under when he signed for a 66.
Levy got his round back on track with a magnificent birdie at the sixth taking him to 17 under. The Frenchman is desperate to make Thomas Bjorn’s Ryder Cup team and the opportunity to represent Europe in front of his own fans on the outskirts of Paris in September, and if he keeps playing like this he should be a shoo-in. And when he holed a 60-foot putt at the seventh, Levy was just two behind the leaders and wearing a smile the size of the Eiffel Tower.
If LI was feeling any nerves, he wasn’t showing it. McIlroy birdied the par-three seventh and the Chinese golfer did exactly the same. They were now both on 21 under. Hatton moved out of the group on 16 under thanks to a superb second shot from the rough at the ninth that set up a birdie and took him to the turn in 32, three under for the day, and he duly picked up another at the 10th, just as Levy dropped a shot on the ninth.
So as we approached the business end of the Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy and Li led on 21 under, with Hatton the nearest challenger on 18 under and Levy a shot further adrift. The winner was surely going to come from that group. McIlroy enjoyed a terrific break at the ninth when his approach shot, which seemed destined for the lake guarding the green, somehow stayed above ground. But could he get up and down and save his par on what was proving to be the most difficult hole? Of course he could, reaching the turn in 33, one better than Li.
Tommy Fleetwood, winner of the Abu Dhabi Championship, emerged from the pack with a fine run on the back nine. He birdied the 13th, 16th and 17th to move to 16 under par, the same mark as Henrik Stenson, who finished his week with an eagle at the final hole.
The record winning score had been the 22 under mark set by Thomas Bjorn in 2001 and it seemed certain that was going to be smashed.
Li hit his drive into bushes at the 10th, had to take a penalty drop and put his third into a greenside bunker. He hit a dreadful bunker shot and walked off the green with a bogey. Meanwhile, playing partner McIlroy found the green with a drive and a seven iron on a hole measuring 549 yards and two-putted for a birdie to move to 22 under par and took a two-shot lead. Game over? Not quite. He gave a shot back at the next to lead by one, and Hatton was just one adrift on 20 under after birdies at the 13th and 14th. When Li dropped a shot at the 12th, Hatton was second.
Despite a huge tee shot at the par-five 14th, McIroy could only par the hole and when Li made a birdie he was back alongside Hatton on 20 under. Up ahead, the Englishman almost drove the 17th and chipped to six feet, knowing that if he holed it he would join McIlroy in the lead, but he was left muttering to himself as it slipped by the hole. Incredibly, Li holed for a birdie from just off the 15th green to draw level with McIlroy again, just as Hatton’s challenge came to an end when he found the water with his second shot at the 18th.
McIlroy hit his drive on the 16th miles right and did well to only drop one shot. It meant that Li was back in front. Both players birdied the 17th and 18th, Li holding his nerve to hole the putt that secured the title. Hatton was third on 20 under, with Levy fourth, one shot behind and Paisley fifth. A group of 13 players tied on 16 under.
Rory McIlroy's 2018 so far:— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) January 28, 2018
• 2 events
• 2 top 3s
• 8 rounds
• 8 under par rounds
• 44 birdies
• 8 bogeys
• 67.0 average pic.twitter.com/2aF8ldhy8V
Unsurprisingly, Li was thrilled. “I don't have many trophies at home, so I was quite happy to lift that heavy thing,” he said. “The putt I holed at the 15th was huge. And especially on 18, I didn't realise I would make that one, either. Most of the time, I was only two or one behind, so I just want to keep putting myself in a position and just not get too far away. Quite happy with what I did.
“I think my game is in a good position now. It gives me a lot of confidence back, especially after last week, missing the cut. Just want to be myself and play some decent golf in the future. It's incredible to play with him [McIlroy]. I learnt a lot of experience from him.”
McIlroy was bitterly disappointed. “ When I birdied the 10th and Li made bogey I thought I was in the driver's seat. Then just a bogey out of nowhere on 11 - just a bad nine iron there - and the three putt on 13, those were the two key holes of the tournament, really, even though there was a bad tee shot on 16.
“But I tried until the very end, made two good birdies and made him win it in the end. How I'm feeling right now, if someone had of told me at the start of the year you'd finish third and second your first two events, I'd say, yeah, I'd take that. But being in the positions I've been in and having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it's a little difficult to take. The competitor in me is very disappointed right now. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn't do enough when I needed to.”
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