Unpredictable things have always been possible at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. There have been seemingly unexpected winners such as Jose Coceres, Robert Jan-Derksen and Alvaro Quiros. In 2001 a young Dane by the name of Thomas Björn beat one Tiger Woods, then the holder of three Major titles and about to add the fourth, down the stretch. Three years later, Woods’ fellow American Mark O’Meara emerged victorious at the grand old age of 47.
And to that list, we can now add the name of Li Haotong. In a hard-fought battle that went all the way to the 72nd green, the 22-year-old took down his playing partner and two-time Dubai champion, Rory McIlroy. Predictably given the pre-eminence of his nearest challenger, it wasn’t easy for Li either. To secure the €403,388 first prize, the Chinese player had to break the previous tournament record of 22-under par by a shot to secure the narrowest of victories.
On a breezy final day, both men shot three-under 69s. But neither was perfect. The new champion recorded three bogeys; McIlroy two. But it was the eventual runner-up who made the decisive errors.
Two shots ahead of Li standing on the par-3 11th, McIlroy badly pulled his tee-shot into sand and made bogey. Two holes later, an enormous drive across the right-to-left dogleg was followed by another poor 9-iron approach. Three putts later, the Northern Irishman made a par that felt like a bogey. And, taking 3-wood from the 16th tee, McIlroy pushed his shot way right into a terrible lie on the desert sand. In the end, he needed a deft up-and-down from over the green to make bogey.
“If someone had told me at the start of the year you’ll finish third and second in your first two events I’d say, Yeah, I’ll take that,” said McIlroy. “But being in the positions I’ve been in and having two close calls these past two weeks, it’s a little difficult. The competitor in me is disappointed right now. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn’t do enough when I needed to.
“I was obviously in the driver’s seat, but the bogey on 11 came out of nowhere. And then the three-putt on 13. Those were the two key holes of the tournament, along with the bad tee shot on 16. It was a couple of bad shots, a couple of poor decisions, a couple of mental errors, a few tentative putts. But I tried until the end and made two good birdies to finish. I made him win it, which was all I could do. I just wish I could get a couple of those holes back.”
In contrast, Li was understandably elated at securing his second European Tour win. Third in last year’s British Open at Royal Birkdale (where he closed with a round of 63), Li is fast establishing himself as one of golf’s rising stars.
The key to his victory came, Li felt, at the par-3 15th where he holed from off the green for an unlikely birdie. It was the first time he had led since he and McIlroy stood on the opening tee.
“That was the turning point,” said Li, who hopes to follow Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia, the past two Dubai winners who then went on to claim the Masters title the following April. “Most of the day I was two or one behind. So I just wanted to keep putting myself in position and not get too far behind. It was incredible to play with Rory. I learned a lot from him.”
Which may not have been quite what the runner-up wanted to hear in the wake of a painful defeat. But some perspective is required. McIlroy has now played eight competitive rounds since returning from an injury-induced three-month break. For those rounds he is a cumulative 40-under par. Going forward, he’ll be fine.