Rory McIlroy completed the best weekend comeback of his career to successfully defend his title and win a record fourth Dubai Desert Classic.
The Northern Irishman’s previous biggest recovery with two rounds to go was from five shots back at the 2015 BMW PGA Championship but having begun round three 10 adrift he closed out a one-stroke victory at the Emirates Golf Club.
Saturday’s 63 catapulted him into contention but there were far fewer fireworks in his final round and, while McIlroy escaped with some loose shots, rivals Cameron Young and Adrian Meronk were unable to exert any meaningful pressure.
“If the scores on the weekend had been flipped and I shot 70, 63, I’d probably be like ‘Yeah, that was amazing’,” said McIlroy, who finished 14 under.
“The course definitely played a little trickier at the weekend. After I finished on Friday I thought if I shot two 67s over the weekend I would have a decent chance to win, and if that had been the case I would have tied on 13 under.
“I wasn’t too far away with the prediction and I went one better than that and ended up winning the tournament.”
McIlroy, who now has a victory and a second place in his first two starts of the season, added: “I played that front nine so well that I didn’t really have to do anything that special on the back nine just to get the thing won.
“I knew I always had one or two shots to play with so I think that gave me a certain level of comfort.”
McIlroy began the day two shots behind leader Young but his birdie after driving the 351-yard second, combined with the American’s bogeys at four and six, saw the advantage swing a stroke in the Northern Irishman’s favour.
And with Young not recording his first birdie until the 10th, Meronk emerged as his chief challenger – briefly sharing the lead before chipping across the seventh green and into the water for a double-bogey five.
His only real moment of concern came with a first bogey in 38 holes at the 13th, where he could not escape from the waste area at the first attempt after taking an aggressive line and going too far left.
Meronk’s third birdie since the turn put him within one but then he bogeyed the 16th while McIlroy brilliantly salvaged par from the left waste area, meaning two closing pars were enough to secure his landmark win.
McIlroy’s positive start to 2024 will give him renewed optimism he can break his nine-year major drought, with the chance to complete a career Grand Slam first up at the Masters in April.
“Augusta is still a long way away in golfing terms. A lot can change in two and a half months,” he said.
“But it’s always nice nice to feel like you’re playing well going into it.
“I’ve still got some big events to come but until that first or second week in April at least a part of my mind is going to be towards getting myself absolutely ready for there.”