Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)

Tommy tops rory

Tommy Fleetwood’s late heroics top Rory McIlroy’s late hiccups in Dubai

January 14, 2024

Alex Burstow

DUBAI — If there is one undeniable maxim that is invariably key to ultimate success when leading a golf tournament with 18 holes to play, it is “don’t get caught.” Then, if a pursuer or two does actually pull alongside the leader, another immutable law comes into play: “don’t get overtaken.” The way back from such a circumstance is arduous indeed. The negative shift in momentum combined with the psychological effect of seeing an advantage drift away are factors incredibly difficult to overcome.

Unless you are Tommy Fleetwood, of course.

Having broken both on-paper rules of front-running over the previous 17 holes, the 32-year-old Englishman stood over a 15-foot putt on the 18th green of the Dubai Creek course. By then, the situation was clear, all doubt and philosophizing removed. Should Fleetwood send his ball into the cup, he would be the winner of the inaugural Dubai Invitational.

And he did, to shoot 67, reach 19 under par for the week, pip Rory McIlroy and a fast-finishing Thriston Lawrence by the narrowest of margins and claim his seventh DP World Tour title.

All of which doesn’t begin to tell the story of a final day littered with a whole range of shot-making, all the way from abysmal to amazing.

McIlroy, in particular, was all over the map, his closing 67 dotted with seven birdies and three dropped shots. Throw in the quadruple-bogey 7 at the par-3 eighth hole on Day 2, the three-putt he came up with from two-and-a-half feet on the 14th green in the final round and the fact that he led the tournament by a shot with one hole to play—then drove into water—and it would be easy to imagine McIlroy leaving the premises filled only with regrets.

Which is not to say he didn’t have a few of those to ponder over the coming days. But the Northern Irishman has been here before. While not denying a chance to win a 17th DP World title had been squandered, McIlroy was quick to point out the many positives he had gathered over the four days of this limited-field, no-cut, pro-am event.

“The three-putt on 14 was down to a lack of concentration,” claimed McIlroy, who will start the defense of his Dubai Desert Classic title at the Emirates Club on Thursday. “When I hit the first putt and looked up, the ball was already on the right edge. I felt like I must have pushed it. So I was guarding against that with the next one and hit it left. It was obviously a bad sequence of events, but I bounced back well with the birdie on 15, a good tee shot on 16 and another birdie on 17. The tee shot on the last is one where I’d be more comfortable playing it off the left side. But if I did that my shot wouldn’t ever cover the trap on the right. So I tried to hit one up the right and turn it over. But I made a bad swing and pulled it left.

“And yes, I had the quad on Day 2 and a few other silly mistakes over the course of the week,” he continued. “You expect that in the first week back after a break. If I clean that up next week, I feel like the rest of my game is right there.”

Fleetwood was making similar noises at the end of a week in which he made the more than 8,500-mile trip from Hawaii, arriving in Dubai late on Tuesday. Feeling better as the days went by, the World No. 15, who famously has yet to win on the PGA Tour, soared into contention with an eight-under-par effort in the third round. But it was the birdie-birdie finish that clinched first prize that he wanted to talk about most.

No wonder. Last July at the Scottish Open, Fleetwood had watched as his playing companion (and subsequent Ryder Cup foursomes partner), McIlroy, come up with the same spectacular finish to win the tournament. This time, the opposite happened.


David Cannon

“I played the 18th very well obviously,” said the new champion. “But the putt I holed on the 17th green was just as important. That kept me in with a chance. I’d watched Rory last year In Scotland and the putts he made on the last two holes. Every time you play with someone like Rory, you learn something, quite apart from the buzz you always get coming down the stretch. It doesn’t matter where you are playing in the world, that special feeling of getting into contention never goes away. So there was a certain element of ‘this is my turn’ about today. And knowing both putts were going in from a long way out was a nice feeling. Today it was my turn to win.”

Amidst such celebration, mention must also be made of Ken Weyand. The 54-year-old American, director of golf at Michael Jordan’s exclusive course The Grove XXIII, was in the field as one of two sponsor exemptions (former Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn was the other). The occasion proved all too much for a man so obscure he doesn’t own a world ranking. Rounds of 87-82-82-86 saw Weyand finish 53 over par for the week and exactly 72 shots behind Fleetwood. It was ugly, but at least it was symmetrical. If not poetic.