McIlroy survives wobble to claim double glory in duel in the sun
Published 23/11/2015 | 02:30
Trust Rory McIlroy to make a huge splash in the desert. Golf's great young entertainer recovered from a "horrendous" shot into the water on the 17th with an outrageous putt to claim the Race To Dubai title with the victory he craved to finish his year on a high.
The £2.15m he pocketed was a mere afterthought after his duel in the sun with the Englishman Andy Sullivan.
It was clear from a long way out that he would top the European Tour money list and so lift his third Harry Vardon Trophy in four years. Yet McIlroy wanted more.
A season which featured him rupturing his ankle tendon ended with him straining every competitive sinew to ensure he prevailed in the DP World Tour Championship and so win his fourth title of 2015. No Majors, but hardly a minor achievement.
"If I hadn't have won, I wouldn't have been happy," McIlroy said after his 66 for a 21-under total.
"Of all the goals I wrote down at the start of the season, this is the one I've achieved. This the first time I've won since May and I couldn't think of a better way to go into the Christmas break.
"The last few events, I've come off frustrated because I really felt I could do better. But I guess I saved the best for last. I've finally showed this week what was in there."
What is in there is undeniably a fierce sporting heart.
Bizarrely, he putts best when under pressure. McIlroy proved that by first hunting down Sullivan and passing him and then by digging deep when disaster loomed.
This was one of the Tour's great battles, a veritable ding-donger which gripped the impressive galleries lining the Earth Course.
It takes two to duel and, in Sullivan, there was a player who started the year 150th in the world but will close it out in the top 40, knowing that he can mix it with the very best. McIlroy will only concur.
"I knew Andy was a great player - you don't win three times in a season and not be a great player," McIlroy said.
"He really impresses me. He flights the ball really well, hits it left-to-right, right-to-left. He's got all the shots and obviously putts very well. He will be a real asset in the Ryder Cup."
Yes, what a prospect England and, indeed, Europe has in the 29-year-old. He began a shot clear but with three birdies in the first four holes pulled three ahead, with McIlroy three-putting the fourth.
"I didn't think Andy was ever going to miss," McIlroy said, reflecting on the three occasions when Sullivan followed him into the hole after the world No 3 had made birdie.
However, McIlroy began to turn the screw and only an audacious chip-in for par from the back of the ninth green saw Sullivan turn with the advantage. McIlroy pulled level with a 25-footer on the 12th and went two ahead with birdies on the 14th and 15th, the latter coming courtesy of a 15-footer.
Tournament over; season over. Or was it? On the par-three 17th, McIlroy chose the wrong club and looked on in disgust as it sailed out to the left before creating huge ripples which quickly spread across the layout.
"I mean, it was 40 yards off line - just a horrendous golf shot," McIlroy said. "But JP [Fitzgerald] said to me, 'Look, just think of it, that you're all-square now. So you get up-and-down for bogey'. It helped. In my mind, we were level when I hit that approach from the dropping zone."
The 30-footer took him back to one-up, McIlroy raising his putter as his ball ran up the slope and in.
"It was the best bogey of my career and probably my longest putt for a bogey," McIlroy said. "It couldn't have come at a better time."
With only a par-five remaining, there was no way back for Sullivan against his opponent's power.
Yet there were so many positives to take from a week which he played in 20-under, five clear of the South African Branden Grace in third.
"It doesn't get better than that - well, maybe one shot better," Sullivan said.
He had every right to carry on living up to his 'Smiley' nickname. He has all but guaranteed his place in next year's Masters and, as McIlroy pointed out, is firmly fixed on the radar of Europe captain Darren Clarke.
"Just to come up head-to-head with someone of Rory's quality was absolutely awesome and something that will stick with me for a long time going forward," Sullivan said.
"I didn't expect him to do what he did at 17. I thought I was back in the game and would be going up the last level, but I gave him a good read with my putt. I expected him to hole it after that and he did. He's a world-class player.
"I think I can hold my own now, it's safe to say. For me, it is now just trying to do it more regularly."
McIlroy's third Race To Dubai title means that only Colin Montgomerie (eight), Seve Ballesteros (six) and Peter Oosterhuis (four) have won the Order of Merit more times.
"This is what I wanted to do at the end of the season. My goal was to win the Race To Dubai and a tournament before the end of the year. It caps the year off nicely. It has been a struggle at times so to finish like this is fantastic," McIlroy said.
That's McIlroy's work done for 2015. He now has a nine-week hiatus before teeing up again down the road in Abu Dhabi, when he will be starting the new year alongside Jordan Spieth. Yesterday's victory narrows the gap at the top of the rankings to the world No 1, who defends his Australian Open title in Sydney this week, but still leaves him in third spot behind Speith and Jason Day.
"I'm really excited about next season," added McIlroy. "I feel my game is back to the level where I want it to be. I think everybody has seen that this week, and hopefully I can go on next year and have a great season."
Danny Willett was another Englishman taking consolation, despite admitting that he ran out of gas on the final day.
"I started the day quickly like we'd hoped, but just hit a bit of a stale patch again on the last few holes," Willett said. "I didn't finish great, but I guess if someone had told me I'd finish fourth and see where that gets me, I might have taken it."
That tie for fourth on 13-under after a 70 meant him finishing second in the Race To Dubai standings, which brought him a £700,000 bonus. He will be back, aiming for McIlroy, just like every pro in Europe.
Good luck with that.