DUBAI, U.A.E. — For the purist, this was two world-class golfers going at it virtually one-on-one down the stretch in the final round of a great tournament, what was the 34th Hero Dubai Desert Classic.
For others given to wider context, the same battle was a contest between the best of the DP World Tour and the upstart LIV Golf League.
And for those of a more cynical bent, tongues only slightly in cheeks, this was the white knight taking on his black-clad counterpart. Hero versus anti-hero, if you will.
Take your pick.
But whatever the final choice might be, it should not detract from what was epic stuff, a truly titanic struggle between Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed (who else?) for the spoils of the day, ownership of the giant trophy and the first-place check of $1.53 million. Not forgetting, of course, the satisfaction that would come from beating the other half of a seemingly fractured relationship that has been the on-going narrative/controversy/talking point of an extra long week in the United Arab Emirates.
All of which ultimately belonged to McIlroy. Courtesy of a birdie-birdie finish that hoisted him to a closing 68 and a 19-under-par 269 total, the World No. 1 edged out his rival by a single shot. Which only begins to tell the tale of an endlessly exciting extra day at the Emirates Golf Club. The details:
On 15 under par at the start of the fifth and final day—heavy early rains pouring the tournament into a Monday finish—McIlroy owned a three-shot advantage over his playing partners, Callum Shinkwin and Dan Bradbury. Reed was one-shot further away. But not for long. Standing on the ninth tee, the Northern Irishman’s eight straight pars meant his edge was down to one-shot. Reed was coming after him, a trend that continued to the 15th, where the American took the lead for the first time at 18 under.
But only briefly. Reed’s bogey on the 16th saw the pair level, before McIlroy drove the green on the 359-yard par-4 17th and two-putted for a tie-breaking birdie. It was to prove the decisive thrust. A routine two-putt birdie on the par-5 18th brought Reed momentarily level once more. But McIlroy was up to the challenge, albeit he made things more difficult for himself than they needed to be.
Driver off the tee left his ball hanging on the edge of the water hazard on the right. The lie was deemed too risky to make the carry over the pond fronting the green, a challenge McIlroy had failed to meet the day before. After the lay-up option was taken, McIlroy’s pitch pulled up what he called 15-feet away. The putt, downhill and left-to-right was no bargain. But in it went.
“It's never easy closing out a golf tournament,” said the now three-time champion in an event where he was low-amateur as far back as 2007. “There's always going to be people that make runs. Obviously, I felt them closing in. And when Patrick drew level with me, I really needed to dig deep. I thought I had blown my chance with the bogey on 15. But thankfully, he bogeyed 16. Then I played a great last couple of holes.”
McIlroy wasn’t shying away from the identity of his most serious challenger either. Or from the obvious fact that, in his first event of 2023, he wasn’t playing at the top of his game. Erratic driving plagued him all week, a facet covered by a sharp short game and putting he said has been “consistently really good for the last 18 months.”
“I had to work really hard to forget about who was up there and try to focus on myself,” said McIlroy, who was also trying to win his first calendar year event for the first time in his career. “Did I want to win? Yes. Was there added incentive because of who was up there? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, I want to win for me. I want to win for my legacy and leaving my mark on the game. But it's great that there is an ancillary benefit to me winning instead of someone else.
“Mentally it was very tough today,” he continued. “I felt like I could have let my emotions get in the way. I set myself a target of 20 under at the start of the day. That obviously would have been good enough; 19 was enough in the end. But I didn't have my best stuff today. I didn't have my best stuff all week. I don't know if I can give it a percentage [of where his game was] because I don't want to be disrespectful to everyone else that played this week. But I can be a lot better. Overall, it's been a pretty draining week. I’m obviously ecstatic to get the win.”
As for Reed, the perceived outlaw of the piece was appropriately dressed all in black, but played like a hero, outscoring McIlroy 65-68 on the day.
Patrick Reed rallied with a closing 65 on Monday in the final round, but came up one shot short.
“I knew what I had to do early,” he said. “I went out there and I put the pressure on him. Being four back of a guy like Rory is not easy. I battled it out, but missed a great opportunity on 15. The only real bad shot I hit was the tee shot on 16. Ended up behind the tree.”
Ah yes, the tree thing. On the 17th a day earlier Reed's ball had plugged high in a tree to the right of the fairway. After identifying his ball “100 percent” through its markings and receiving the approval of the tournament referee, he was allowed to drop beneath said tree and proceed. That turned out to be fine with McIlroy.
“I felt it was fine,” McIlroy said. “If it had been anyone else in the field it would have been a nonissue but because of certain things in the past, people bring stuff up. Which is maybe unfair in some ways. But again, it is what it is. I've stood and defended Patrick in some of the controversies. I don't feel like he was trying to get any advantage.”
This time round, in fact, Reed found a safer haven—rules-wise at least—when his ball ended in a bush. No one wanted to talk about that though. Had Reed seen the video coverage of his tee-shot a day earlier? And had he taken note of the chatter on social media?
No and no.
“I don't really look at media or social media whenever I'm playing a tournament,” Reed said. “Normally it's always negative, so I try to stay away from it. I've heard about it, but really all I can say is that I looked through the binoculars, identified my golf ball and explained what my markings were to the rules official. He looked and he identified [the ball] exactly the same way I did.”
Asked if he felt victimized in such a situation because of his previous interactions with the rule book, Reed said he did.
“The good thing is I know who I am,” he said. “All I can do is focus on my golf and focus on me. Felt like I've done that this week. Felt like I played great. It always seems to come down to Rory and I. We love to put on a good show. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong end of this one. Hats off to him, he played some great golf, especially on the weekend. It would have been even better if both of us were in the same group. But whenever he and I are battling, we have fun and epic battles.”
Which is where we came in. Add this one to the list. And call it what you like.