Like one of those old cowboy movies, good against evil, the only pity of the duel played out in the desert was that Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed were in separate groups. Still, the drama – with all its subplots – was compelling, as McIlroy’s eventual one-stroke winning margin, on the back of a closing birdie to claim the Dubai Desert Classic title, provided an immediate statement from the world number one that winning is what truly matters.
If Reed, one of LIV golf’s principal exponents, has played the role of villain to a tee, with bad blood between the pair, it also provided an extra edge to McIlroy’s thought process down the stretch.
[ Dubai Desert Classic as it happened: Rory McIlroy beats Patrick Reed with birdie on the last ]
Rather than let emotions get in his way, especially on the Par 5 18th hole which has been somewhat of a nemesis, McIlroy’s cool, calm and collected play of that finishing hole to sink a 15 footer for birdie in a well-crafted 68 for a total of 19-under-par 269 was proof again of his ability to close the deal.
In many ways, the inches between the ears is as important as any of the 14 clubs in a player’s bag. Yet, as if to define the physical thin lines at play, McIlroy’s drive of 321 yards on the 18th hole finished on the painted red hazard marking just short of the water. “Sit, sit, sit,” McIlroy had implored the ball aware of where it was destined, confirming afterwards that luck had been on his side in it staying out of the lake.
What followed, though, was a demonstration of maturity. In last year’s final round, McIlroy suffered a watery grave when going for the green in two. On Sunday, in the third round, the same fate befell him. This time, he took a wedge from caddie Harry Diamond and laid up to a favoured 92 yards from the pin. His third shot finished 15 feet beyond the pin, and he rolled in the winning putt to claim the Desert Classic for a third time in his career; and also mark the first time he had started a year’s campaign with a win.
“With the two balls in the water on Sunday last year and then yesterday, ‘fool me once, shame on me, and fool me twice’. I wasn’t going to get fooled a third time. It was nice to be able to play the percentages and make it pay off,” he admitted.
McIlroy had started the final round with a three stroke margin of safety over Callum Shinkwin and Dan Bradbury but, rather, it proved to be Reed, the man in black, in the group in front, who emerged as his main rival. With play painfully slow, McIlroy – held up throughout – at least got to see what Reed was doing ahead of him, aware too that the American had briefly edged ahead entering the final stretch.
However, Reed’s bogey on the 16th after a poor drive down the left had him blocked by trees brought them back level and then he failed to birdie the drivable Par 4 17th. There, McIlroy’s tee shot reached the front edge of the green and he duly two-putted to reclaim the lead and then brilliantly closed the deal on the last.
“I think mentally today was probably one of the toughest rounds I’ve ever had to play because it would be really easy to let your emotions get in the way and I just had to really concentrate on focusing on myself. Forget who was up there on the leaderboard, and I did that really, really well.
“I feel like I showed a lot of mental strength out there today, and again, something to really build on for the rest of the year.
“There’s been a ton of positives this week but also been some things that I need to learn from and I need to try to improve on. I’m going to enjoy this. This is probably sweeter than it should be or needs to be but I feel like I’ve still got some stuff to work on. It’s a great start to the year and a really good foundation to work from,” said McIlroy, who returns to life on the PGA Tour at next week’s Phoenix Open.