Haotong Li held off Rory McIlroy to win the Dubai Desert Classic Sunday by a single stroke, denying the Northern Irishman’s bid to win his first title in 17 months.
Haotong finished on a tournament record 23-under-par 265 after a final-round three under 69 to win by one shot over McIlroy, who also shot a 69.
The 22-year-old from China made a ten-foot birdie putt on the last after McIlroy had ramped up the pressure by reaching the par-5 18th hole in two shots.
Haotong started the day one ahead of his Northern Ireland rival and that advantage was quickly gone on the first hole when he made a bogey.
However, it was a bogey on the par-5 10th by Haotong that led to a two-shot swing when McIlroy made a birdie there, and the advantage remained with the four-time major champion when his bogey on the 11th was matched with another dropped shot by Haotong on the 12th.
But the momentum swung Haotong’s way when he dropped a 20-feet birdie putt on the par-3 15th from the back fringe and McIlroy made a bogey on the 16th after hitting his three-wood off the tee into the waste area.
Both players then birdied the last two holes.
First Chinese pl;ayer in Top 50
Haotong’s second European Tour win will lift him to around 32nd in the rankings, making him the first Chinese player to break into the top-50.
“Well, for some reason, after making that bogey on the 12th hole, I was just so relaxed. I was two shots behind at that point and I just wanted to have fun,” he said.
“I was lucky, I made birdie on the 13th, and he made par. On the 15th green, for some reason, I just felt so good down there. Felt so comfortable. And also got lucky with that putt. I think it was the most important shot of the round.”
McIlroy was making his comeback to golf after a three-month layoff.
“If someone had told me at the start of the year you’d finish third (in Abu Dhabi) and second in your first two events, I would have said I’d take that,” said McIlroy. “But being in the positions I’ve been in and having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it’s a little difficult. The competitor in me is very disappointed right now. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn’t do enough when I needed to.”
England’s Tyrrell Hatton finished third on 20 under after hitting his second shot into the water on the 18th hole, while France’s Alex Levy was fourth with a 269.