DUBAI, Jan 28— Li Haotong produced a stunning birdie burst down the home stretch to hold off Rory McIlroy in a nip-and-tuck battle and win the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on Sunday.
The 22-year-old Chinese, one clear of McIlroy overnight, picked up four shots on his final six holes en route to a closing 69 as he posted a record low event total of 23-under-par, beating the four-time major winner, who also carded closing 69, by one shot.
With this victory, his second on the European Tour, Li became the first Asian to hoist the iconic Dallah trophy in the 29-year history of the ‘Major of the Middle,’ as the tournament is fondly referred to, and the first male golfer from his country to break into the world’s top 50.
McIlroy, who shared tournament’s lowest 72-hole score of a 22-under with Thomas Bjorn and Stephen Gallacher, had his chances to match the great Ernie Els’ feat of a record three wins at Emirates Golf Club, but blew away a two-shot lead with eight holes to play, a bogey on the 16th virtually swinging the momentum in favour of the Chinese.
Standing on the final hole with a one-shot advantage, Li closed the deal, rolling in a 10-footer for a birdie as McIlroy, who hit the green in two, missed his long eagle putt, eventually settling for a birdie which was not good enough to extend play.
“I was quite nervous on the first few holes. I bogeyed the first, but came back really quick, which was good,” said Li after receiving the winner’s trophy from Abdulla Kalban, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer Emirates Global Aluminum, Founding Partner of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
“I think most of the time I was only two or one behind and just wanted to keep pulling myself and not go too far away. I hit some of my best shots on the last four holes. Happy to be here, holding the trophy,” he said, adding: “I’m looking forward to my first Masters.”
The 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.
McIlroy was full of praise for Li’s tenacious finish, he could not help but reflect on his own missed opportunity. “From being two ahead standing on the 11th tee to being level going into 16, I just don’t know,” he said.
“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.
“I kept leaving myself in places where I couldn’t really give it a run at the hole because they were downhill, downgrain, downwind. So I didn’t really leave it in the best spots to be aggressive with my putts.
“But I tried until the very end, made two good birdies. Made him win it in the end which was all I could do and 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.”
England’s Tyrrell Hatton produced a closing 66 to finish third at 20 under, a shot clear of Frenchman Alexander Levy and three ahead of countryman Chris Paisley.
Rising MENA Tour star Todd Clements won the amateur medal, finishing on two-under for the tournament after a final round 76.