DUBAI, U.A.E. — Seven holes into the final round of the DP World Tour Championship, the Race to Dubai looked over. With his fifth birdie of the day, Jon Rahm reached 20 under par and moved into what appeared to be a winning position on both fronts. At that stage, Tommy Fleetwood was eight back at 12 under par. Rory McIlroy was nine adrift. Closest to the now distant leader was Mike Lorenzo-Vera at 14 under par. The destination of both the $3 million first prize and the $2 million bonus that comes with topping the season-long points table appeared assured.
But it wasn’t.
As Rahm made two sloppy bogeys before the turn, then played the first eight holes of the back-nine in a rather pedestrian level par, Fleetwood cut loose. Six birdies dotted the hirsute Englishman’s card thereafter, taking the World No. 10 to 18 under par for 72 holes over the Greg Norman-designed Earth course at the Jumeirah Estates. Lorenzo-Vera wasn’t messing about either. The 34-year-old Frenchman’s final 11 holes produced three birdies, no dropped shots and took him to 17 under. Proche, mais non cigare.
All of which left Rahm standing on the tee at the 620-yard par-5 closing hole knowing he needed a birdie to give himself and fiancee Kelley an early seven-figure wedding present. And he was up to the task. Eventually. An enormous drive left only a 4-iron to the green, but the approach was pushed into sand. A "chunk-and-run" was the shot of choice from there, one that expired no more than four feet from the cup. In went the putt.
“I feel like I've had two different days completely,” said Rahm. “Those first seven holes, I felt like I couldn't miss a shot. I felt really, really confident; everything was rolling. My putting was unbelievable. Then just one errant tee shot and a three-putt kind of took everything in the wrong direction. I kept myself in there with a birdie on 10 and a birdie 14, but I still made some mistakes. It would have been a very different day if I don't three-putt nine and 15. But it happened. And it made me show some determination and grit and heart just to win.”
There were thoughts too for Rahm’s boyhood hero Seve Ballesteros, the only other Spaniard to end a year as Europe’s No. 1. But it was Jack Nicklaus and the 1966 Open Championship at Muirfield that ultimately got Rahm through the stresses of the final three holes.
“I stood on the 16th hole after three-putting and remembered Jack talking about his in in that Open,” continued Rahm. He was on the 16th hole as well and told himself, ‘If you finish 3, 4, 4 (par-birdie-par), you win the tournament.
“So I told myself before I hit the tee shot: ‘If you finish 4, 3, 3, you win the golf tournament, no matter what anybody else does.’ And that's kind of what I did. I played three really solid holes.”
As ever, Fleetwood was magnanimous in defeat, one week after he had tasted victory for the first time in 22 months.
“I feel fine,” he announced. “Couldn't have done much more, really. I’m proud of the way I played the last few holes. And I’m proud of the end of the season. These last two weeks make me look at this year in a different light. And fair play to Jon. That was a cracking birdie down the last when he had to make it.”
And McIlroy? The orld No. 2 was more philosophical than openly disappointed on the back of his closing 73. The year, he felt, was one which he would look back on with fondness. Four wins and 19 top-10s worldwide represented a new level of consistency for the 30-year-old Northern Irishman.
“There's been a lot of good golf played,” he said. “It's been a learning year as well. I learned some things I want to take forward into next year. But first and foremost, I'm looking forward to a couple of months off. I’ll reflect on everything and get myself ready for next year.”
Lorenzo-Vera also enhanced his growing reputation for slightly eccentric philosophy with his closing remarks.
“Jon looks like a bomber and he was hitting bombs on my head in the beginning with his putter,” said the Frenchman, whose delightfully fractured English isn’t quite as good as his golf. “I did not expect anything else than what happened today. I knew if I was going to be 20 under, I had my chance. 17 was too short. That's it.”
Beyond Rahm, there was one other winner on the final day of this 47-event season—Robert MacIntyre. The 23-year-old left-hander’s T-14 finish comfortably clinched the Sir Henry Cotton rookie-of-the-year title. Thirteenth on the Race to Dubai, the Scotsman recorded seven top-10 finishes—including three runners-up—and earned more than $2.2 million.
All of which has earned MacIntyre many admirers, not least Olympic champion Justin Rose, who played alongside the young Scot as he closed with a three-under-par 69.
“Bob has all the shots,” Rose said. “When you grow up in Scotland you think, stereotypically, he’s going to be a low-ball hitter. But he can play any golf course. He can hit it high. He can hit the flop-shot. He can play American-style golf with the best of them. But he is not limited to the high ball, which is fantastic at this stage of his career. He looks like he has a game that can travel.”
The accumulation of air miles can wait though. For now, MacIntyre is done, although he already has one eye on next year and a certain tournament in Augusta, Ga.
“I've been shooting at the top 50 in the world for the last four or five weeks,” he said. “I've fallen just short, but this season has opened up doors for me. If I continue to do what I'm doing on the golf course, then in my own head, it's a matter of time.”