It may be only two tournaments old, but Rory McIlroy’s 2024 has already been a rollercoaster ride that’s served as a reminder, if one were ever needed, of just why he’s the game’s most compelling player by some distance.
Last week he somehow managed to grab defeat from the jaws of victory at the Dubai Invitational, and even the most ardent fan struggled to envisage him standing atop the podium this week when he was 10 strokes back after 36 holes.
But count him out at your peril, and 36 holes later, he walked off the 18th green with a wide smile, making history by winning a fourth Dubai Desert Classic, successfully defending a title at the same course for the first time, and getting worldwide win number 38 under his belt.
In truth, his ‘A game’ only came out in round three as he came roaring through the field with a flawless nine-under 63, and even then, he couldn’t have expected to be in Sunday’s final group or within two shots of the lead. He needed the leaders to stall on moving day and they duly obliged, and from there, it was all about getting his nose in front and getting over the line.
Sunday’s performance wasn’t quite vintage Rory. He didn’t blow the field away and win by six or seven, but he did enough, thanks in part to 54-hole leader Cameron Young again struggling over the opening nine holes, bogeying two holes, while the world number two covered them in -3 to hit the front and open up a three-stroke lead heading into the back nine.
With three par-5s to come, the likelihood of McIlroy coming back to the field was slim, but he failed to take advantage of the first of these, and a wayward tee shot at the 13th lead to a bogey-six and suddenly it was game on.
The left miss off the tee cost him on the 72nd hole last week, and after the same result on 13, he missed both of the next two fairways in the same direction, the par-4 16th particularly wayward, but he reminded us why he’s the number-two ranked player in the world with a sublime recovery shot, almost doing the unthinkable and making three.
As Young continued to falter, it would be Adrian Meronk who’d turn the screw the most, but his failure to birdie 17 after dropping a shot at 16 meant McIlroy held a two-stroke advantage as he stood on the 17th tee. At 330-yards, nobody was laying up, but finding the green was virtually impossible, but McIlroy’s tee shot was close to perfection, leaving himself a chip across the green with one hand on the trophy.
Keeping us on the edge of our seats, he was a little heavy-handed, and had to settle for par. Up ahead, Meronk birdied 18, but McIlroy was in the mayor’s office back in the fairway and knew par was enough to get win number 17 on the DP World Tour. His second shot had safety in mind, and he was able to chip to close range and two-putt for his par and victory.
Earlier in the week, he’d spoken about his consistent presence at the top of leaderboards, and seldom has that been greater displayed than this week where he had his C- game for much of the week, yet still prevailed over a top class field.
“Yeah, it’s really cool,” he said about his record-breaking fourth Dubai Desert Classic title. “I didn’t really think about that during the course of the round, you know, it was a really tricky day. It was hard to, to get it close and make a ton of birdies and, you know, the pivotal point for me, I feel came on the eighth and the ninth hole making two threes there, that sort of set me up to, to sort of try and control it on the way in.
“And, you know, I made that one blunder on 13 and, and made bogey there, but I felt like I steadied the ship well over the last few holes. And yeah, it was one of those days where, you know, there, there wasn’t a ton of fireworks just because the course is so difficult, but I held on as best as I could.”
Back in 2010, he came from the cutline after 36 holes to storm to victory at Quail Hollow, securing his first PGA Tour victory, but he was only eight back after two rounds. This time, he was 10.
“Yeah, so I, I thought the way the golf course was trending, I thought two 67s, would really have a chance,” he replied when asked if this was his greatest comeback. “So, you know, obviously the 63 yesterday put me in a great position.
“But yeah, I thought, you know, on Friday night I thought 10-under for the weekend, I’d, you know, I’d have a really good chance to win. I shot 11 and ended up winning by one.”
Completing an excellent week for Holywood Golf Club, Tom McKibbin shot a third-successive two-under round of 70 to finish tied for 14th, his highest finish in a Rolex Series event to date. It was an up-and-down day for the 21-year-old, birdieing six but bogeying four, but he’ll make the short trip to Ras Al Khaimah for next week’s event buoyed by his own performance and his clubmate’s success.