Dubai Desert Classic

Watch Rory McIlroy find the water on the 18th hole and splash away a chance at victory in Dubai

January 30, 2022

Andrew Redington

DUBAI — It would be an exaggeration to say this sort of thing is becoming something of a habit. And unfair to castigate too strongly a man who has four major titles to his name, as well as 28 other victories around the world. Yes, he is held to a higher standard than almost any other golfer because of the almost peerless natural talent that has entertained fans over the last decade and more. But really, come on. Rory McIlroy should be winning even more often than he does.

He certainly should have won this Dubai Desert Classic for a third time to tie the record of Ernie Els. Or, at least, he should have been part of the playoff in which Viktor Hovland would defeat Richard Bland at the first extra hole. Needing a birdie to win the whole thing and 267 yards from the flag on the 564-yard par 5 at Emirates G.C., McIlroy hit what can only be described as an awful shot. When long and left was the “miss” that would almost certainly have bequeathed at worst a putt to win, the Northern Irishman’s 3-wood came up short and right—and wet.

In truth, it wasn’t even close. At least 15 yards separated the ball’s entry point into the pond short of the putting surface and the safety of dry land. But McIlroy already suspected as much. Long before the inevitable splash-landing, he was bending the shaft of his club behind his head and gazing skyward.

Even worse was the fact that good luck had been on the Northern Irishman’s side to that point. Twice McIlroy had escaped potential disaster on the back nine. His drive off the 10th tee finished way left of the fairway, and he was fortunate to be afforded even a hack at the ball from the edge of a bush. Not that it helped much, unplayable after two shots, he was then forced to take a penalty drop. In the end, he did well to make a bogey 6, his putt from 15-feet celebrated by a mildly humorous fist-pump.

Birdies on the 11th and 13th followed, but a similarly precarious scenario transpired on the drivable par-4 17th. Again the tee shot was wayward and well left. Again he was hacking out, this time into long grass by the green. And from there an exquisite pitch finished stone dead, saving the par that left the World No. 8 needing the 18th hole birdie to win. The birdie that never came.

This latest loss was clearly more painful than most. Immediately after signing his card for a final-round 71 that left him on 11 under par and one-shot short of the playoff, it was a stoney-faced McIlroy who marched across the practice putting green en route to who knows where. Not once did his eyes veer from straight-ahead, his entourage—caddie, agent and an extremely large security guard—trailing in his dejected wake.

Not winning is something every golfer knows only too well, of course. But losing when you should win is another thing entirely. So it is that McIlroy will need to put this latest bout of slipshod play behind him as quickly as possible. And for that he could do better than ask the advice of Ian Poulter.

Two days earlier, the Englishman entered the elevator in his hotel and bumped into a journalist of his acquaintance.

“You’ll have had better weeks, I’m sure,” said the sympathetic scribe, in reference to the fact that Poulter had missed the cut with something to spare.

“What are you talking about?” responded Poulter with a smile. “What missed cut? I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve already forgotten this week.”

Achieving that level of convenient amnesia is likely to be more difficult for McIlroy to achieve. Not only are his expectations higher than Poulter’s, only two months ago the Northern Irishman endured a similarly traumatic loss. Also in Dubai.

Tied with Collin Morikawa, the eventual champion, atop the leader board on 15-under par with four holes to play in the DP World Tour Championship, McIlroy hit his pitch to the 371-yard 15th green right down the pin. Literally. The ball struck the stick and rebounded into sand, from where he took three to get down. All of which was followed by a three-putt bogey at the 16th and another dropped shot on the last. In the end, McIlroy, who wordlessly left the premises with his shirt ripped and hanging off his torso, subsided to a T-6 finish, five shots adrift of Morikawa.

This was worse though. And while it would be wrong to describe his occasional inability to convert down the stretch as a pattern, this sort of thing really can be habit-forming. And not in a good way.