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McIlroy pipped yet again as Kaymer implodes in tale of the unexpected

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Rory McIlroy shows his frustration on the 18th in Abu Dhabi as he misses out by one shot. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy shows his frustration on the 18th in Abu Dhabi as he misses out by one shot. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Getty Images

Rory McIlroy shows his frustration on the 18th in Abu Dhabi as he misses out by one shot. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

All week, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer stared down from giant roadside hoardings here, warning everyone to 'Expect the Unexpected' at the Abu Dhabi Championship, but what actually happened yesterday in the Arabian Desert was utterly incredible.

Two-time Major champion and former World No 1 Kaymer, one of the golf's coolest operators, became the unlikely fall guy in this 'tale of the unexpected' as he slumped to an astonishing mid-round collapse on a course where he has won three times.

Astoundingly, the German choked up a 10-shot lead to give the unheralded Gary Stal (below) the opportunity to claim a first European Tour victory which even the 22-year-old Frenchman hadn't dreamed possible until he caught sight of a tournament scoreboard on his way to the 15th tee.

Stunned

McIlroy, who Stal readily admits is one of his heroes on Tour, also was stunned to be thrust suddenly into contention with four holes remaining, though the World No 1 had to be content with his fourth runner-up finish in five years in Abu Dhabi after a six-under-par 66 left him one behind the winner.

After his valiant last-ditch attempt to catch Stal down the stretch - culminated in a thrilling bunker shot at 18 which brought McIlroy within a hair's breadth of eagle and a play-off - he watched the final throes on TV in the privacy of the scorer's area.

As Stal (22) sealed his one-stroke win on 19-under with a par five at 18 for a flawless closing 65, McIlroy merely shrugged his shoulders and reflected on four second places in his last five tournaments.

"Seems like I'm always the bridesmaid at the moment," he sighed before stepping out to face the cameras.

Ryder Cup star Kaymer's utter domination of the first 54 holes, which left him six ahead of his closest challenger, Thomas Pieters, entering the final round, rendered it unthinkable that anyone else might win this event.

"Going out today, my goal was to finish second," McIlroy admitted. "I didn't think I was going to get close to winning the tournament. Martin actually was 10 ahead at one point and you think from there there's only going to be one winner.

"It just shows you, funny things can happen in this game. If you just sort of plug away and stay patient, your time will come, I guess. It was just a little too late for me today."

After thrusting himself firmly into contention at halfway with the help of his first hole-in-one in a professional tournament at 15 on Friday, McIlroy believed he had relinquished any hope of victory during his third-round 71.

Though the Northern Irishman surprised even himself with the quality of his ball-striking in his first tournament of 2015, he stalled badly on the greens here on Friday and Saturday, leaving him so frustrated and infuriated that McIlroy admitted "I feel like punching myself".

Starting the fourth round eight behind Kaymer, McIlroy made an easy birdie at two after missing from 10 feet for eagle three but was knocked back on his heels once again by a three-putt bogey on the par-three fourth.

The catalyst came at eight, when McIlroy invited his caddie, Dubliner JP Fitzgerald, to assist him in reading the line of his putts and instantly completed a hat-trick of birdies, holing from four feet at eight, six feet at nine and 20 feet at 10, before picking up another three at 13, 15 and the last.

Struggled

"To be honest, I've always struggled to read the greens here and once JP helped me out with the reads, it was much better," said McIlroy, plainly delighted to discover that nothing was awry with his putting technique.

"It told me that I was starting the ball where I thought I was and that was the main thing.

"There are a few times each year I'll ask JP to read greens. For example, I always struggle at Doral so I ask him there, though it all depends on how well I'm feeling and how comfortable I am a particular week. It's usually on grainy greens that I get him to read them more.

"It's been great to see where my game is and to know what I need to work on going forward.

"I don't think my ball-striking has ever felt this good in the first event of the year, especially after taking a complete break and not touching a club for four weeks."

McIlroy expressed sympathy for Kaymer, clearly referring to his own Sunday afternoon implosion at the 2011 Masters as he said: "I know what it's like to let a lead slip. It's tough, you have a couple of bad swings and some guys start making birdies.

"All of a sudden, from being very comfortable, you're put under a little bit of pressure and it's very hard to come back because it feels the momentum has gone way against you."

Kaymer had appeared at his invincible Abu Dhabi best as he scooted to 23-under, one stroke off his record 72-hole winning total in 2011, with birdies on three of his opening four holes yesterday to lead the field by double figures.

Yet the mask slipped when he made his first bogey in 48 holes at the fifth, followed by a double-bogey six out of the desert at nine and the horrific treble-bogey seven at 13 that sent him tumbling out of the lead he had held since Thursday's career-best 64.

Kaymer's error in taking the driver off the tee at 13 was compounded when he had to take a drop out of a bush, still got an awful lie in the sand and then barely advanced his ball 15 yards.

"I'm surprised, a little shocked," said Kaymer after signing for the final-round 75 that left him in third on 17-under. "When you miss fairways usually you get away with it okay. You don't make double or treble-bogey, which happened today. Also, I missed a lot of putts and therefore found it very difficult to make birdies. Yet even after 13, I felt calm out there."

Like McIlroy, Stal learned of Kaymer's collapse at the stood on the 15th tee and confessed that his heart was pounding in his chest as he slammed his eight-iron "past the hole quite a bit, so there must have been adrenaline."

The winner may perform his unorthodox swing with the intensity of a mad axeman but he was coolness personified as he strode towards the biggest prize of his fledgling career.

After turning pro in 2012, Stal won twice on the Challenge Tour that year. His biggest cheque prior to yesterday was ¤39,700 in eighth at last June's Irish Open in Fota, the highlight of a solid rookie season on the European Tour in which he made 21 of 25 cuts.

He shared fifth last Sunday week at the South African Open but Stal's performance in Abu Dhabi puts him in a new league. "It's great to shoot a final-round 65 and win," said McIlroy. "With a field like this, it's very impressive."

The highlight of Stal's round came at 16, where he took a two-stroke advantage over hard-pressing McIlroy by holing a 23-foot uphill left-to-right putt for birdie. Nerveless pars at 17 and 18 then ensured him a place in history with Jamie Spence (1992 European Masters) and Paul Lawrie (2009 Open)

He maintained his sang froid until the post-tournament media conference, when Stal broke down in tears as he revealed his mother Christine had passed away from cancer in Lyons as her son prepared for the BMW PGA at Wentworth.

McIlroy and Stal met for the first time in the gym this week but their paths may cross more often in future as the Frenchman's ¤379,798 cheque propelled him into third in the Race to Dubai and he soared into the world top 100.

McIlroy earned ¤253,158, while Damien McGrane collected a ¤7,748 cheque in a tie for 55th on five-under after a closing 72.

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