ABU DHABI — It is the case, of course, that only one contestant ever leaves any golf tournament feeling true happiness. And that was certainly so for Thomas Pieters, whose final-round 72 and 10-under-par 278 was just enough to give him the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship title and the first prize of $1,330,000.
For many of those in contention, however, there will be obvious and surely lingering regrets. None of those who looked most likely to offer potent challenges to overnight leader Scott Jamieson ended up breaking par, never mind 70. All of which meant the relatively fast-finishing (!) Rafa Cabrera-Bello (70) and Shubhankar Sharma (71) ended up in second place, one-shot back of the new champion.
Starting one-shot off the pace, Shane Lowry’s outward half of 40 contained a brace of 7s. The inward half wasn’t a lot better either. In the end, the former Open champion’s 77 saw him fall to a T-12 finish.
Viktor Hovland eventually came up two-shots shy of Pieters in a tie for fourth place alongside Frenchman Victor Dubuisson and will surely look back on the triple bogey he made at the par-4 third hole and the double-bogey 6 on the 15th as the primary reasons for that failure.
Jamieson wasn’t immune either. Far from it. Four bogeys in the first five holes set the Scot who had been leading each of the first three days back on his heels. And despite subsequent steadiness, his weight never again returned to his toes. His forlorn 77 left him tied 10th.
Still, none of the above was bothering Pieters. The soon-to-be 30-year-old Belgian (his birthday is Jan. 27), a veteran of the 2016 Ryder Cup (where he finished with four points from his five matches), has since failed to fulfil the huge potential that was obvious when he claimed the 2012 NCAA Championship while playing at Illinois. A victory in the Portugal Masters towards the end of 2021 provided a much-needed fillip, however, before this, his sixth victory on what is now the DP World Tour.
“I was well in control,” said Pieters, who arrived in the Gulf ranked 69th in the world. “When you're in control of your ball flight and the golf ball, it's fun. You can be creative and that's how I felt out there today. Winning a Rolex Series event is as good as it gets in Europe. Hopefully this lifts me. I want to play all of the big tournaments and hopefully this gets me close. I kind of disappeared for a couple years. Top 50 is your strive point, and when I fell out of that maybe three years ago, I took it badly. I’m happy to be there again.”
Back in the pack, where he started and eventually finished, Rory McIlroy did add some typical excitement to the proceedings with a bold run of figures through the 13th hole, highlighted by an eagle at the par-4 ninth where he holed out from 141 yards.
At that stage he was tied for second place. But that was where he stalled on a Yas Links course for which he clearly feels little affection compared to the tournament’s previous home, Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Told this event will be played here for at least another three years his smiling response said it all: “see you in 2026.”
Anyway, a wild drive at the 359-yard 14th led to a momentum-ending bogey. And two more shots were dropped at the closing two holes, a wild 3-wood into the water at the par 5 pretty much summing up the last hour of the Northern Irishman’s life.
“Honestly, I’m happy enough I got to play an extra two days,” said McIlroy of a five-under-par total that saw him finish T-12. “I had to make a birdie at the last on Friday night to be here. Then I almost made the most of the weekend. I played well yesterday. And I played really well today before a couple of loose shots coming in cost me.
“I thought if I played the last five in two under and got to double digits I would have a decent chance,” he continued. “But I didn't quite do that. I probably hit the wrong club on 14 trying to get close to the green with the pin at the back. And I just didn't quite play the shots I needed to coming down the last few holes. Still, it was good to see where my game is at. It was good to get an extra couple of days golf going into Dubai next week. Obviously, that wasn’t the finish I wanted today, but big-picture-wise it was good to assess where everything is and know what to work on going into next week.”