Rory McIlroy lets Dubai Invitational slip from grasp as Tommy Fleetwood takes title

Horrific three-putt on the 14th and wayward drive on the 18th prove costly in the end for Northern Irishman

The body language, most especially the shake of his head, not once but on numerous occasions, told it all. Rory McIlroy had the Dubai Invitational title in his grasp only to let it slip, the closing brilliance of Tommy Fleetwood – who took advantage of the Northern Irishman’s failings – only serving to underscore that old adage of it not being over until it is over.

Where was it lost for McIlroy? Well, you could point to a horrific three-putt bogey on the par-3 14th, where he hit his tee shot to inside 3ft, only to endure a nightmare with putter in hand; or, more specifically, after reclaiming the lead by the time he stood on the 18th tee, then viciously pulling a drive into the water down the left in again running up a closing bogey.

The upshot was that Fleetwood’s birdie-birdie finish – holing from 16 feet on the 18th – for a 67 for a total of 19-under-par 265 gave the Englishman a one-stroke winning margin over McIlroy and South African Thriston Lawrence.

That head shaking, whether in exasperation or bemusement, from McIlroy as he worked his way around the Dubai Creek course was understandable: that water ball on the 18th was his fifth of the tournament, and second of the final round having also hit an iron into the lake on the sixth, but it was his driving which truly let him down. He found only three fairways overall in the closing round, where he still managed seven birdies in finishing with a 67. He was ranked 60th – and last – in the driving accuracy statistics.


In taking the glass half-full approach afterwards, McIlroy talked of his first outing of the year as being “really positive.”

As he expanded, “I think the first week back out, you’re going to expect some of those sloppy mistakes, and unfortunately for me, those mistakes came at the wrong time. But, you know, I’ll reflect on it and learn and there’s still lots of good stuff in there. I just need to tidy up some of the edges and, if I do that, I feel good going into next week.”

McIlroy remains in the UAE for his defence of the Dubai Desert Classic but the mistakes, costly as they were, highlighted what work is required as he moves onwards to a hectic spring schedule aimed at peaking for the Masters at Augusta National in April, where he will again seek to claim the missing piece in the puzzle to complete a career Grand Slam.

While McIlroy had started the final round playing catch-up on Fleetwood, a shot behind, he had managed to move into the outright lead by the time he got to the 18th thanks in the main to a hot run of three successive birdies from the 11th to the 13th. It had seemed like a formality to make it four-in-a-row when hitting inside three feet on the 14th only for him to race the birdie putt five feet by the hole and then miss the par putt back.

But McIlroy recovered with birdies on the 15th and 17th to regain the lead only for that wild drive on the 18th – the error compounded by Fleetwood’s magnificent birdie putt to finish – to prove his undoing, with a gentle fist-bump with his conqueror on the 18th acknowledging how it all panned out. “It was a good battle out there and hopefully I have many more with Tommy this year and for the years ahead,” he said.

Of those back nine lapses, McIlroy said: “I probably wanted to hit a different shot [on 18] because that was what was most comfortable. But I tried to go with the shot that I felt like I should hit, and then I wanted to try to turn one over because it was the only way that I was going to be able to carry the bunker on the right, too.

“Just a bad swing at the end there. And, then, just a little sloppy, a lack of concentration with the tee shot on six in the water, and then the same thing with the putt on 14 as well. Just a couple little mental errors in there that hopefully I’ll clean up for next week.”

Fleetwood’s seventh career win on the DP World Tour, and first since the Nedbank Challenge in 2022, came on the back of a closing 67 – five birdies and one bogey – with back-to-back birdies on 17 and 18 edging him into the lead with a sense of perfect timing.

“I looked distinctly average compared to the way Rory started playing on that back nine, but I felt very in control [of] my game. It was just a case of staying patient,” said Fleetwood of keeping to the task at hand and ultimately getting rewarded.

Tom McKibbin – who is also playing the Desert Classic – finished with a 72 for a total of five-under-par 279 in tied-25th.

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Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times