Haotong Li takes down Rory McIlroy by one at Dubai Desert Classic
The four-time major winner got clipped at the very end
Haotong Li set a new scoring record at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic by finishing birdie-birdie to get to 23 under for the week. The first Asian golfer to win this event shot a 3-under 69 on the day and had to close with four birdies in his last six holes to beat McIlroy by a stroke.
McIlroy closed with a pair of birds of his own, but he was upended by a poorly-played 16th hole, which resulted in a difficult up and down for bogey from beyond the green. The runner-up finish was his first here following wins in 2009 and 2015.
He actually birdied three of his first 10 holes on Sunday and looked poised to cruise home to title No. 3 at this course. A bogey at the 11th on what he called "one of the poorest shots hit all week" and that badly-played hole at No. 16, though, set him back.
Still, his two-week stretch in the Middle East resulted in a pair of top-five finishes and an overall score of 40 under. If that's not a success following 100 days of hibernation then maybe we need to redefine the parameters we're using to measure elite golfers.
But McIlroy was not pleased with his performance.
"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," he said. "I kept leaving myself in places where I couldn't really give it a run at the hole because they were downhill, downgrain, downwind.
"(I) tried until the very end. Made two good birdies. Made him win it in the end, which was, you know, all I could do. 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."
After his bogey at No. 16, McIlroy pulled driver at the drivable par-4 17th and touched off an extraordinary up and down for birdie there. Then he closed like we've come to see him close over the years. He sent a missile straight for Li's soul off the tee on the par-5 18th and two-putted for birdie.
That finish, maybe more than anything I've seen over the last two weeks, speaks to where his game is at. It seemed that every time we expected to see him close last year, he faltered. A misread here, a bad wedge there. He wasn't clicking. He is now, despite his two bogeys on the back nine, and that's going to be a big problem worldwide over the next eight months.
"If someone had of told me at the start of the year you'd finish third and second your first two events, I'd say, 'Yeah, I'd take that,'" McIlroy added. "But being in the positions I've been in and 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. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn't do enough when I needed to."
Speaking of problems, the 22-year-old Li might be a star. That he won was important. The way he won maybe even more so. With three bogeys through 12 holes, Li trailed McIlroy by a pair with just six to play. That's a death knell for most golfers over the last decade, especially with McIlroy only making one mistake over those same six holes. So what did Li do? He stared into the mouth of the lion, didn't blink, and reeled off four birdies to usurp the four-time major winner.
His drive on No. 17 was a microcosm of the way he played down the stretch. Li teed off first on the short-ish par 4, and he didn't even think about a layup. He blistered a cut over the palm trees off the tee box and left himself a straightforward chip to get up and down for an easy birdie. It's easy to let horses like McIlroy roll through your head and affect your decision-making. Li didn't waver. He didn't pull anything other than big boy clubs out of his bag, and in the end he pulled a win.
After he stuck a 99-yard wedge and buried a 10-footer for victory on the 72nd hole, Li exchanged a handshake-hug with McIlroy and the respect on his face was as genuine as it was all-encompassing. As if he'd just realized exactly what he had done. This is how you down legends, though. By staying inside yourself until it's over and praying it's enough. Li would later say he hit some of the best shots of his life over the last four holes on Sunday.
And that was enough on Sunday for Li as he grabbed the biggest win of his young career. He'll certainly be back for more in the future, and if the last fortnight has been any indication, he'll have to keep rolling through McIlroy to find what he's looking for.
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