The third time was not the charm.
Once again, Rory McIlroy appeared to be on his way to victory in the Middle East, only to have the carpet pulled out from under him. Back in November, he cratered in the DP World Tour Championship, which led to the torn shirt. Last week, he came from well back in Abu Dhabi to stand on the cusp of the lead but ran into trouble off the tee on the back nine.
Back in Dubai for the Dubai Desert Classic, an event he’s won twice, including his first professional victory, McIlroy was a logical choice to contend and played accordingly from the outset. He opened with 71 and then shot a bogey-free 66 on Friday to stand four strokes off Justin Harding’s lead.
McIlroy trimmed a couple strokes off Harding’s lead on Saturday, making several clutch par and even bogey saves on the greens. That entitled him to go out in the final group for Sunday’s final round with Harding and Tommy Fleetwood.
Rather than separating themselves from the pack, that final trio basically threw the door open to any and all comers. McIlroy and Harding bogeyed the first hole, while Fleetwood took double bogey there.
McIlroy finally found a rhythm with consecutive birdies at the sixth and seventh holes as he rolled in putts from 18 and 29 feet, respectively.
The lead became McIlroy’s at 11, where he drilled a 24-foot birdie putt, while Harding was making a mess of things in the bunkers to clear off the green with a triple-bogey 6. That solidified when McIlroy knocked in a 12-footer for birdie at 13. The situation looked as if he could go on cruise control from there and maybe he even thought so himself.
Meanwhile, Viktor Hovland, who’d been missing a handful of short putts over the weekend, finished birdie-eagle-birdie to join McIlroy atop the leaderboard.
Shades of the previous week in Abu Dhabi surfaced when McIlroy’s tee shot at 17 went well off line and landed in a bush left of the fairway. Once some of the brush was peeled away, he declared the ball “100 percent playable.” He advanced the ball into the rough and then lofted it to within three feet of the cup. That he got off the green with par was nothing short of amazing.
The percentage dropped from 100 percent to zero percent playable when McIlroy’s approach shot at 18 landed in the water fronting the green. He appeared to want to snap his 3-wood over his knee but thought better of it and handed the club to Harry Diamond, his caddie.
Hitting a drop shot from 85 feet out, McIlroy placed the ball about 10 feet from the cup. Putting for par and a spot in the playoff alongside Hovland and Richard Bland (who’d finished with two birdies), the ball was well struck and appeared to be on line but kissed the cup and ran a foot past.
McIlroy finished the event alone in third place, three strokes ahead of the quintet in fourth place. Despite not winning, he moved up from eighth place to sixth in the Official World Golf Rankings. Hovland also climbed two pegs, from fifth to third.
Padraig Harrington was also in the running for much of the tournament. He shot 70, 70 and 69, and then birdied the third and fifth holes on Sunday to get to within a couple strokes of the lead. He then began to misread putts, which caused him to drop four strokes, beginning at the seventh hole. Closing birdies at 17 and 18 entitled him to a share of ninth place, five strokes off the playoff number.
A second-round 74 prevented Shane Lowry from doing better than joint-24th place. He combined that with rounds of 71, 68 and 71 to finish eight strokes off the low number.
Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow began the 2022 season in the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio in Boca Raton, Florida. Both made the cut, Maguire getting a share of 27th place at 1-under-par 287 (73-70-71-73) and Meadow finishing tied for 57th place at 293 (75-69-77-72). Lydia Ko shot a winning 274.