China’s Li Haotong displayed nerves of steel to beat Rory McIlroy in a head-to-head battle and win the $3 million Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday.
In an intense battle played out between the two players in the final group, Li managed to protect his one-shot lead at the start of the day by shooting a three-under-par round of 69 to tally a tournament-record 23-under total of 265.
McIlroy, who had surged ahead just after the turn, also made a 69 but a three-putt par on the par-5 13th hole, followed by a bogey on the par-4 16th, proved crucial as he finished on 266.
It was 22-year-old Li’s second win on the European Tour following his triumph at the 2016 China Open, and he is sure of becoming the first Chinese player to crack into the top 50 of the world rankings on Monday.
“It was incredible to play with Rory. I gained a lot of experience from him. This win gives me a lot of confidence and will help me do better in the majors this year,” said Li, who came third at last year’s British Open at Birkdale.
He is now expected to rise to number 32 in the world.
Li started the day one ahead of McIlroy, but a bogey on the first hole brought them level. Both then birdied the third and seventh holes to make the turn at 21 under par, way ahead of the field.
England’s Tyrrell Hatton briefly threatened to join the party with four birdies in six holes starting from the ninth, but he finished on 20-under after missing a birdie putt from four feet on the 17th and then hitting his second shot into the water on the 18th hole.
There was a two-shot swing in McIlroy’s favour on the 10th hole when Li had to take an unplayable from the bushes after a wayward drive and made a bogey, while the Northern Irishman got his birdie.
– McIlroy’s ‘poor decisions’ –
The situation remained the same after McIlroy made a bogey from the bunker on the par-3 11th, followed by a Li bogey on the 12th.
It was then that the four-time major champion made his mistakes on the 13th and 16th holes, while Li made a stunning 20-feet birdie putt from the back fringe on the 15th.
“This is incredible. I just didn’t think I could make that putt on 15. That was huge. I think that was the turning point. And also on 18, I didn’t think I would make that one, either. Was quite happy in the end,” said Li, who made a 10-feet birdie putt on the final hole to ensure the tournament did not go into a play-off.
McIlroy remains winless since August 2016 when he won the Tour Championship.
“From being two ahead standing on the 11th tee, to being, you know, level going into 16th, I don’t know, it was a couple of bad shots, a couple of poor decisions, a couple of mental errors, a few tentative putts out there, as well,” said McIlroy, who finished third in Abu Dhabi last week in his comeback tournament.
“But I tried until the very end. Made two good birdies. Made him win it in the end, which was all I could do, and he played very well on the way in, birdieing three of the last four. I just wish I could get a couple of those holes back.
“Having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it’s a little difficult. The competitor in me is very disappointed right now.”
Hatton’s 66 saw him move to third place on 268, 20 under par. He was followed by France’s Alexander Levy (70) in sole fourth place at 19-under 269, while Chris Paisley (69) continued his remarkable form and finished fifth on 17-under.