Rory McIlroy sees golden opportunity for Dubai hat-trick end in watery grave

Viktor Hovland takes advantage to win playoff and move to third in the world rankings

The grimace told one story. The smile another.

Rory McIlroy’s face, contorted with a series of grimaces after his bold but unwise play of his final hole, expressed better than any words the inner turmoil after effectively throwing away his chances of a third Dubai Desert Classic when his 3-wood approach to the 18th green came up short into the lake.

The upshot for McIlroy after a closing bogey – in a round of 71 for a total of 277 – was that the trophy, which had looked firmly in his grasp, slipped away after that disastrous finish, with Norway's Viktor Hovland ultimately defeating England's Richard Bland at the first hole of sudden-death after the pair had finished on 12-under-par 276.

Hovland’s smile told its own story, as he moved to a career-high third in the world rankings, move to the top of the DP World Tour order of merit and pocketed a cheque for €1.22 million in securing a third win globally in his last five tournaments.

For all of Hovland’s brilliance – which featured a run of birdie-eagle-birdie in his closing three holes, the eagle arriving on the 17th after he drove the green and holed a 30-foot putt – in claiming the title, McIlroy found himself at the centre of the drama for all the wrong reasons after losing a tournament he seemed all set to win.

Indeed, his decision making in going for the green with a 3-wood from 267 yards on the 18th – needing a par to secure a place in the playoff, a birdie to win – was all the more head-scratching given the manner of his escapology on the drivable par-4 17th.

On that penultimate hole, McIlroy’s drive was pulled badly into a waste area where it came to rest in a bush.

His conversation with caddie Harry Diamond was one of McIlroy doing the convincing in offering the belief that he could play the Taylor Made 22 out of the shrubbery. "Yes, 100 per cent, 100 per cent. Yes, I got it," reassured McIlroy, before offering a warning to the spectators who had encroached too close: "This could go anywhere."

As it happened, McIlroy played a shot of great skill in advancing the ball to greenside rough and then pitching to 12 inches for an extraordinary par save.

His play of the 18th hole, though, didn’t carry the same level of clear-headed decision making. After a 3-wood off the tee, and some mud noticeable on his ball, McIlroy opted to go for the green rather than laying up or bailing out to the left. From the moment of impact, McIlroy knew. He knew it was destined for a watery grave. In advancing to the drop zone, his fourth shot finished 15 feet from the pin and his birdie putt lipped out as if to rub salt into wounds.

McIlroy’s exit from the course was a hasty one, headed for a flight back home to Florida and a break of two weeks before next teeing up in the Genesis Invitational on the PGA Tour.

The third-place finish earned McIlroy a payday of €452,027 while Pádraig Harrington’s tied-ninth place finish banked him €145,414 while Shane Lowry’s tied-24th finish earned him €75,696.

Hovland’s dramatic win brought the 24-year-old to new heights in the world rankings: “I guess being number three is pretty crazy, but you know, that stuff can vary week-to-week and I’m not going to let that stuff dictate my mood or how I do things. But it is very rewarding to see all the hard work paying off.”