DUBAI, Jan 29— Li Haotong barely figured in discussions on the eve of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club, but became the talk of the town with a sublime one-shot victory that resonated across the golfing word.
Going head-to-head with nailed-on favourite Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old Chinese prodigy outshined the Northern Irishman coming down the final stretch, his victory bearing a striking resemblance to the 2001 ‘epic duel in the sun’ when Thomas Bjorn bested a red-hot Tiger Woods.
From almost a peripheral figure to being Made for Greatness, the wheel of fortune turned well for a golfer who became the first Asian to hoist the iconic Dallah Trophy and join some golfing greats such as Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie to name a few on an illustrious roll on honours.
His victory with a record 23-under-par score lifted the Hunan native into the world’s top-50 in a first a Chinese male golfer, posing an interesting question: Can he go on and follow in the footsteps of his compatriot and the top-ranked woman golfer Shanshan Feng. Only time will tell, but he has already taken the first step in that direction.
Attribute it to the mystic of the Majlis course, Chinese golfers seem to have developed a special affinity for Dubai. Feng, in particular, has turned Emirates Golf Club into her personal playground, winning the Omega Dubai Ladies Classic four times in five appearances at the iconic venue.
Late last year Angel Yin, an American of Chinese heritage, won the Ladies European Tour event and Li added further spice to that flavour.
Seeking a revenge of sorts after missing the cut in Abu Dhabi, Li reeled off 30 birdies against five bogeys and a double-bogey during the week to beat the previous lowest score of the tournament, jointly shared by Thomas Bjorn, Stephen Gallacher and McIlroy himself, by one shot.
“My phone has exploded with messages and it’s going to very big (reaction) in China,” Li said his victory, his second on the European Tour. It (the victory) is going to give me a lot of confidence for the next few events and the rest of the year, especially The Masters. I have never been there before, so looking forward to the big event,” said Li, who was congratulated by McIlroy after he holed the winning birdie putt.
Playing in his second tournament in eight weeks after suffering a rib injury, McIlroy posted 40 under par across back-to-back events and that can hardly be classed as a failure.
“The competitor in me is very disappointed,” said the 28-year-old, winner here in 2009 and 2015. “But if someone had told me at the start of the year that you would finish third and second in your first two events, I’d take that.”
McIlroy headlined a mega field that included 10 major winners and three Ryder Cup captains among other European Tour elites with American Pat Perez making his first appearance and, as the tournament tradition has it, it produced a high-quality spectacle of golf.
As many as 1,784 birdies, 38 eagles and two holes in one were made during the week as the Majlis course stood the test of time with aplomb with the par-5, 10th (18 eagles and 207 birdies) proving to be easiest hole and the par-4, sixth the hardest (38 birdies).
The last two winners of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic — Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia — have gone on to win The Masters Tournament just two short months later. Can Li make it three in a row? There will be shortage of talking points in the runner-up to the first major of the year.