Rory McIlroy [Inpho/Morgan Treacy]

'Mentally drained' McIlroy prevails in Dubai Desert Classic

Rory McIlroy admitted that he didn’t have his “A” game, yet he managed to snag his third Dubai Desert Classic victory, although this one exacted a toll previously lacking. 

 Patrick Reed made sure that McIlroy would have a distraction hovering overhead. The LIV golfer, who seems to embrace his status as a villain, had served McIlroy with legal papers on Christmas Eve. McIlroy then brushed off Reed on the driving range in Dubai, causing Reed to flick a golf tee in McIlroy’s direction. Thus, “TeeGate” was born. 

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With it, the possibility  of the two going mano a mano over the final 18 holes was almost too tantalizing to even contemplate. But what transpired came close enough. 

 McIlroy was in contention from the outset, shooting 66 over the course of two days as rain delayed the progress of the first round. Having begun his round at the 10th hole, he closed it out on the front side, going birdie, eagle, birdie. The eagle at the par-4 eighth hole came when he holed out from 107 yards. 

 Friday’s round yielded a score of 70 that might actually have been better than the number indicates. Granted, he hit only two of 14 fairways but he gave himself decent birdie looks, only to fall on the wrong side of golfing karma as numerous birdie putts stopped just inches from the hole.

 McIlroy came out blazing on Saturday, taking birdie at each of the first four holes. He then went into a holding pattern, although he exhibited some clutch golf that seemingly only he can execute. 

 At the 10th hole, McIlroy’s tee shot came to rest in a bush, the ball suspended about two feet off the ground. He choked up about six inches on the shaft and knocked his ball about 150 yards onto the fairway. He took par. Then, at 11, McIlroy sank a clutch par putt of 14 feet. 

 The birdies resumed at 13, 14, 15 and 17, stopped only by a bogey at 18, a hole at which McIlroy famously cratered last year. He finished the round by hitting his second shot into the water fronting the green, leading to a bogey-6. But he held onto the lead after his round of 65.

 Sunday was something of the flip side of Saturday’s round. McIlroy played evenly over the first eight holes, not picking up a birdie until the ninth hole. He reprised that feat at 10 and 13, only to give a stroke back at 15. 

 Reed, meanwhile, rallied from four strokes back to catch McIlroy late in the round. McIlroy can thank unseen powers that Reed’s second shot on the par-5 10th hole skipped over the cup, stopping just under two feet away. Reed had to “settle” for eagle there. 

 McIlroy then had to birdie the final two holes to clinch the victory. Neither putt was a gimme. The putt at 17 measured three and one-half feet, while the putt at 18 covered 14-½ feet. When that second putt dropped, McIlroy turned toward the grandstand and let loose with an air punch. 

 “Big release” is how McIlroy described the moment. “I sort of had to bottle everything up today and then was finally able to let it all out on the 18th green.”

 McIlroy wasn’t coy when asked whether Reed’s presence in the group ahead of him and on the leaderboard tightened the vise of pressure that he was feeling. 

 “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,” McIlroy said. “Forget who was up there on the leaderboard, and I did that really, really well.”

 The outcome in Dubai drew a distinct contrast with last year, when McIlroy’s game didn’t really find legs until he reached Augusta for the Masters. But he realizes that there aren’t laurels to coast on. 

 “I really feel like I haven't had my best all week but I just managed my game so well and played really smart,” McIlroy said. “Just ecstatic that I gave myself an opportunity the first week back out and yeah, again as I said, I managed my game well. I definitely feel like there's tons of room for improvement but it's a great start to the year.

 “I think the short game display that I put on this week was as good as I can remember. Some things I need to tidy up with the long game, but overall, if I can win golf tournaments of this caliber not having my best stuff, it gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

 Padraig Harrington, Shane Lowry and Tom McKibbin all missed the cut. Harrington did so in rather spectacular fashion, opening with 81 and then taking 16 strokes off that number in the second round to miss by four strokes. He had seven bogeys and two doubles against two birdies in the first round. The second round saw him notch eight birdies offset by only a single bogey. 

 Lowry appeared to still be feeling the effects of the previous week’s carnage in Abu Dhabi. His opening 70 offered promise but that proved fleeting in the second round. As happened the previous week, all kinds of mayhem ensued at a water hole, this time the par-3 seventh. If any positive can be taken from that it would be that he holed an eight-foot putt for quadruple bogey-7. 

 Tom McKibbin missed his second consecutive cut. He was four strokes under par through 12 holes of his first round, only to see his tournament go sideways from there. After taking a triple bogey-7 five holes later, he was two strokes over par with 74. A 71 in the second round lacked much drama but couldn’t secure a path to a tee time in the final two rounds. Both he and Lowry missed the cut by three strokes. 

 Action on the DP World Tour moves to Ras Al Khaimah this week, where Harrington and McKibbin will try to put their Dubai experiences behind them. They will be joined by Gary Hurley and John Murphy. Meanwhile, Seamus Power returns to America for the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, at which he was the 36-hole leader last year. And Graeme McDowell returns as a past champion in the Saudi International, co-sponsored by LIV Golf and the Asian Tour. 

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