Kamran Jebreili Rory McIlroy celebrates his win in the Dubai Desert Classic.
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McIlroy: The form male golfer on the planet takes down the man in the LIV Golf hat
Rory McIlroy continued his stunning end to last year by winning his first event of the year ahead of Patrick Reed.

GOLF IS ULTIMATELY a game of constant comparisons and Rory McIlroy can today reflect on one both neat and irresistible. 

A year ago, McIlroy stood on the 18th fairway at the Dubai Desert Classic knowing a birdie would win him the tournament and a par would earn him a play-off…and chunked the ball into the water.

Today McIlroy stood on that same Dubai fairway with those same permutations, but this time he dropped the ball to within 15 feet of the hole and then nervelessly rolled it in to win outright. 

This year’s outcome is good news for those who might want to phone McIlroy to congratulate him, given he smashed his phone in anger at his watery end in Dubai a year ago. Not that Patrick Reed will be among the well-wishers. McIlroy’s steely finish deprived us of a play-off to crescendo the pair’s lagged shootout throughout today’s final round in Dubai, Reed’s fabulous 65 chewing up his four-shot deficit before his clumsy bogey on 16 gave McIlroy an opportunity he did not spurn. 

“This is probably sweeter than it should be or needs to be”, said McIlroy afterward, which felt like a wordless acknowledgement of Reed, having already let slip the additional meaning with which the event had been freighted by Reed’s presence. 

“I think mentally today was probably one of the toughest rounds I’ve ever had to play. It would be really easy to let your emotions get in the way and I just had to really concentrate on focusing on myself, forget who was up there on the leaderboard and I did that really really well.” 

And to make an obvious point: Patrick Reed takes a lot of forgetting. Even when he isn’t playing as well as he did today. Reed is almost an archetypal Bad Guy, redolent of the jowly, stomping jock who eventually gets their comeuppance in all American college films not made by Richard Linklater. 

After courting controversy through tee-throwing and tree-gazing over the last few days, Reed once again leaned uncompromisingly into his caricature by chasing down McIlroy in a LIV Golf-branded hat. The Saudis should at least be happy with some rare television exposure. 

dubai-desert-classic-golf Kamran Jebreili Patrick Reed during today's final round in Dubai. Kamran Jebreili

The first half of today’s final round carried echoes of McIlroy’s galling final round at the Open last year, as, leading from the front, he did nothing wrong while somebody else did too much right. Reed birdied three of the first nine holes and then like Cameron Smith at St Andrews, caught fire at the turn, picking up eagle at 10 and then a birdie at 11. 

McIlroy, meanwhile, didn’t pick up his first birdie until the ninth hole, at which point Reed had clambered alongside him on the leaderboard. But Reed’s mistake on 16 instantly negated McIlroy’s bogey on 15 and birdies on the closing trio of par-fives earned McIlroy a satisfying win. He did need a bit of luck to get it, coming perilously close to finding water off the final tee. His lay-up from the rough was a child of his experiences on the hole both last year and yesterday, where he again went ka-dunk to blemish a glittering scorecard and offer Reed a chance to chase him down today. 

McIlroy spoke of today’s win as a platform for the rest of the year but equally important is that it’s a continuation of last year. For he remains the form male golfer on the planet. He has now won three of his last seven events and hasn’t been outside of the top four in any of them. Stretch that out: he has finished outside the top 10 at just four of the 19 events he has played since the last year’s edition of the Masters at Augusta. 

McIlroy told the Sunday Independent last year that a ball change before Augusta effected instant improvement after missing the cut at the Texas Open, but it is also becoming impossible to decouple McIlroy’s on-course confidence from his off-course conviction. In that same interview, he spoke of leaving Augusta after a best-ever round of 64 with a fire kindled, and talked in similar terms of his delightful trashing of Phil Mickelson’s saying the quiet part out loud about the “scary motherf*****s” bankrolling LIV. McIlroy called Mickelson’s comments “naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant”, and months later told the Sunday Independent,” Yeah, the relighting of the ‘fire’ wasn’t just on the golf course.” 

McIlroy needed patience, steely putting, and mental resolve to win in Dubai today: all the tangible but unromantic sediments of steady sporting improvement. But the fact he won by holding off the Man in the LIV Golf Hat opens a question as to whether the sport’s rough split and McIlroy’s unflinching opposition to it has also contributed to this superb form.

His clarity and conviction in the face of LIV has made McIlroy the face of professional golf and perhaps this has reminded him of his own rare talent; the moment a whole sport looked to him and reinforced Shane Lowry’s motivational jolt ahead of the final day of the 2021 Ryder Cup. 

You’re Rory f**king McIlroy! 

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