An ecstatic Rory McIlroy believes he has plenty of room for improvement after holding off a brilliant challenge from rival Patrick Reed to win a third Hero Dubai Desert Classic title in dramatic style.
McIlroy birdied the final two holes at Emirates Golf Club to card a closing 68 and finish a shot ahead of Reed on 19 under par as the first Monday finish in the tournament’s history proved well worth the wait.
Playing in the group ahead, Reed had also birdied the 18th to complete a superb 65 and set the clubhouse target, but McIlroy was not to be denied and holed from 15 feet on the last to cement his status as world number one.
“It means a lot,” said McIlroy, who had never previously won on his first start of the calendar year.
“It was a battle all day, it’s been a battle all week. I really feel I haven’t had my best all week but I just managed my game so well and played really smart.
“Just ecstatic that I gave myself an opportunity the first week back out and there’s tonnes of room for improvement but it’s a great start to the year.”
McIlroy and Reed had begun the week embroiled in a war of words after Reed threw a tee towards McIlroy after being snubbed by him on the practice range.
McIlroy said he did not see the tee but was unhappy at being subpoenaed on Christmas Eve by the lawyer representing Reed in a defamation lawsuit against several media members and organisations, although McIlroy’s subpoena relates to a separate suit filed by Larry Klayman against the PGA Tour.
With McIlroy watching from the tee, Reed also became involved in another rules controversy in the third round when his tee shot on the 17th lodged in a palm tree.
The former Masters champion and rules officials used binoculars to identify the ball, allowing Reed to take a penalty drop near the base of the tree instead of having to return to the tee.
Reed insisted he was “100 per cent” sure that he could identify his ball, although television footage appeared to cast doubt on which tree it had landed in and tournament officials issued a statement to clarify the ruling.
Asked if Reed’s presence on the leaderboard had spurred him on, McIlroy told Sky Sports: “Mentally today was probably one of the toughest rounds I’ve ever had to play because it would be really easy to let your emotions get in the way.
“I just really had to concentrate on focusing on myself, forget who was up there and I did that really, really well. I feel like I showed a lot of mental strength out there and again, something to really build on for the rest of the year.”
McIlroy began the day with a three-shot lead over playing partners Dan Bradbury and Callum Shinkwin with Reed another stroke back, but the American birdied the second and third before holing out from a greenside bunker on the sixth to close within a shot.
McIlroy followed eight straight pars with a much-needed birdie on the ninth to briefly double his lead, only for Reed to then almost hole his second shot to the par-five 10th for an albatross.
The tap-in eagle took Reed into a share of the lead and, although McIlroy two-putted the same hole for birdie, Reed also birdied the 11th to get back on level terms.
Reed’s fifth birdie of the day on the par-five 13th edged him into the outright lead for the first time, but, in echoes of their epic singles clash in the 2016 Ryder Cup, McIlroy responded with a superb approach to the same hole and tapped in for a birdie after narrowly missing from 18 feet for eagle.
McIlroy’s bogey on the 15th gifted Reed the lead again only for him to promptly drop a shot on the 16th following a wayward drive and McIlroy took full advantage with a birdie on the 17th to reclaim top spot.
McIlroy’s drive on the 18th stopped just a foot short of the water and he reached his ball just as Reed two-putted for birdie to join him in the lead.
Effectively forced to lay up, McIlroy then hit a wedge to 15 feet left of the pin and holed the putt before letting out a roar of relief and delight.
Australia’s Lucas Herbert carded a closing 66 to finish third on 16 under, with Shinkwin a shot further back in fourth after recovering from a nightmare start with six birdies in his last 12 holes.