Friday 24 February 2017

Worn-out McIlroy raises white flag in Dubai race

Irishman expects Donald to wrap up historic feat, writes Dermot Gilleece

Luke Donald is poised to step into history today as the first player to win the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic in the same year. With a typically tidy third-round of 66, he regained control of his own destiny on the Earth Course in Dubai yesterday, while a clearly tired Rory McIlroy effectively played himself out of contention.

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it became déjà vu all over again for McIlroy in his pursuit of this elusive crown. Two years ago at the same venue, a third-round 66 from Lee Westwood proved decisive in the Race to Dubai, with McIlroy runner-up.

On being asked if he felt he still had a chance after yesterday's 71, he graciously replied: "No, it's over. Luke's in a great position and I expect him to wrap this up with another solid round tomorrow. He deserves it. He's had an incredible year."

Still, there was a memorable Irish performance from Shane Lowry, who birdied the last two holes in a sparkling 68 for a share of fifth place behind the leader, Alvaro Quiros. Lowry, who had hoped for a head-to-head with McIlroy in the final round, instead found himself three places ahead of his compatriot. After a raker on the 17th, the Offalyman sank an eight-footer on the long 18th where he had gained the distinction on Friday of becoming the first competitor to card a closing eagle in this tournament.

Donald was understandably pleased with a bogey-free round which swept him up the leaderboard. "It was exactly what I needed," he said. "There's a lot on the line and attempting to make history can put pressure on you. Since nobody's ever done it before it's obviously a tough feat to accomplish and who knows if I'll ever get another chance."

A bright spot for McIlroy was the arrival of his girlfriend, Caroline Wosniacki, the world tennis No 1. "When she showed up on the back nine I started to play some good golf," he said. "Hopefully she can follow me for 18 tomorrow." In fact he had birdie putts from inside 10 feet on each of the last eight holes, but got only four of them in an inward 32.

Three days previously, Donald paid a rich tribute to McIlroy on the eve of battle, even though it was very much at odds with the thinking of his celebrated compatriot, Nick Faldo. On being appointed Ryder Cup captain in 2007, Faldo claimed that leading British players were too cosy and friendly with each other to have the competitive streak to win the top tournaments.

"They're too chummy," said the six-time Major winner. "All the current generation are having lunch together and going off to play for a million dollars. You don't find Tiger Woods doing it. In our era we were competitors, very separate individuals and we kept it that way."

He was right about Woods. After he had played with Pádraig Harrington in the 2009 Bridgestone Invitational and then in the opening round of the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National, I asked Woods if it was fair that the Dubliner's Major achievements had been diminished in some quarters by his own (Woods) absence in 2008. His reply was: "I'm sorry I wasn't playing. No, I mean, he won the tournaments. He beat whoever he needed to beat in the field, plain and simple."

That was it. No glowing praise of a rival who was capable of hurting him competitively, down the road. Whereas Donald said: "Rory has the most talent of anyone I have played with, and that includes Tiger. I see him winning lots of tournaments and lots of Majors because the sky really is the limit for him."

A day later, when drawn with McIlroy in the first round, the current world No 1 got what must have been a disturbing, close-up view of a wonderful back nine from the only rival who could deprive him of a unique distinction. And after an opening 66, McIlroy was tied third, two strokes off the lead, while Donald languished in a share of 26th position after an uninspiring 72.

The Englishman would have found it even more disquieting to hear McIlroy comment afterwards: "I do feel everytime I tee it up right now I've got a good chance of shooting a good score. Everything seems sort of stress-free." One could readily understand those feelings against a background of finishing third, third, second, fourth and first in his five previous Tour outings, quite apart from a $2m bonanza for a play-off victory over Anthony Kim in the invitational Shanghai Masters on October 30. But things were to about to change.

"To be honest, I'm ready for the season to be done and looking forward to putting the clubs away," was McIlroy's comment after a second-round 71 which saw him retain third place but slip to five strokes adrift of the new leader, Quiros. And while this tiredness persisted, Donald improved his position significantly from 26th to tied 12th after a 68.

It then emerged that McIlroy's closing 65 for victory in the Hong Kong Open last Sunday, was even more remarkable than first thought. It will be recalled that a mysterious illness caused the Holywood star to spend three days in hospital during a break in the Maldives last month with Wosniacki.

Knowing he had to win in Hong Kong to have a chance of challenging Donald for the Race to Dubai title, his new manager, Conor Ridge, was moved to remark: "You can see that Rory looks worn out. Though he should be fine to compete in Dubai, he will be getting medical advice as to whether he should go on to Thailand the following week."

But Ridge was also aware of the resilience of youth. So it was that prior to the final round in Hong Kong he urged his lethargic client to "have a little gym session". The upshot was that McIlroy not only did the gym work-out but followed it with a five-kilometre run before romping to the title.

This, however, proved to be a temporary respite. It was revealed on Friday that suspected dengue fever contracted from a mosquito bite was causing the lethargy he has been battling for the past few weeks. "It could have been a number of things and I'm going to see a doctor again today [Saturday] before deciding whether to go to Thailand," he said.

Facing a different sort of fight, Donald wasn't about to throw in the towel. Back in 31st place after three-putting the eighth on Friday, he revived his challenge with three closing birdies. Then came the admission: "It would be foolish of me to bank on Rory not winning. I want to finish off what I came here to do and when there's a lot on the line you feel more nervous, which sometimes is a good thing."

A measure of the challenge McIlroy faced is that going back to 1937, only three Irishmen have led the European money list -- Christy O'Connor Snr (1961 and 1962), Ronan Rafferty (1989) and Harrington (2006). As it happens, even a win today by McIlroy wouldn't be enough, given Donald's current form. And there is clearly no shame in finishing runner-up in a season-long examination, for a second time in three years.

Sunday Indo Sport

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