In elusive victory in Abu Dhabi passed Rory McIlroy by yet again, but the Northern Irishman is content following a third-place finish after returning to the golf course following a 100-day injury lay-off.
After shooting -3, -6 and -7 under par rounds across the opening three stanzas of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the world number 11 closed with a -2 under par 70 on his long-awaited return to action, finishing in a share of third with England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick – four shots behind returning champion Tommy Fleetwood.
McIlroy’s challenge faded on the back nine yesterday, but he admitted to being “really happy” with his game following more than three months on the sidelines.
And he heads to the Dubai Desert Classic next weekend in confident mood. Unlike his luckless spell in Abu Dhabi, where he has finished runner-up four times and third twice, McIlroy has fond memories of Dubai – it was the scene of his first win as a professional, aged 19, in 2009.
“It’s a golf course I know very well,” McIlroy said of Emirates Golf Club, where the Dubai Desert Classic tees off on Thursday.
“My game is in good shape. I have no doubt if I can play the same way I played this week, I’ll have a good chance next week.
“It’s just a matter of dust myself off and, looking back on this week, it’s been a huge success for me, even though I didn’t win today. I felt like I got a lot out of it and I’m excited to get back at it again next week.
“It could have been a little bit better today. Overall, I’m really happy how I played this week.
“My game is in really good shape and I saw some really, really positive signs. I’m looking forward to next week in Dubai and obviously looking forward to the rest of the season.”
McIlroy, 28, shut down his 2017 campaign after the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October, citing a rib injury. It transpired that things were actually a little more serious as a heart irregularity was discovered.
But on the eve of his return, McIlroy insisted his health was never in danger. And the four-time major winner revealed he’s in a “better place” and claims he would have taken such a lofty finish on his return prior to the weekend.
“Yeah, I would have. I really would have,” he said.
“Again, I didn’t really know what my expectations were coming into this week. I just wanted to get back on the golf course and play again. I’ve done that and I’ve played pretty well. I felt like I did everything I wanted to do.
“I maybe didn’t get the ball close enough on the back nine today but it’s been really good. I’m really happy with how I played and it gives me confidence going into not only next week but the few months ahead, as well.
“Where I’ve come from the last three months, just in terms of my health and my golf and everything, I’m in a much better place now than when I left the game for a little bit in October.
“I’m really happy with that and just looking forward to getting back at it again next week and trying to put myself in contention again and try to get my name on that trophy one more time in Dubai.”
England’s Tommy Fleetwood successfully defended his title at the $3 million Abu Dhabi Championship Sunday, shooting a seven-under par 65 round to beat compatriot Ross Fisher by two shots.
The 27-year-old Southport resident made the turn at one-under par, but was on fire on the back nine. He made six birdies, including one on the closing 18th hole, to edge Fisher.
The back-nine heroics of Fleetwood, ranked 18th in the world and expected to rise to No10 when the new list is released Monday, included making a 25 feet putt for birdie on the 15th hole to tie for the lead with Fisher, and then a 50-feet birdie putt to take outright lead on the 16th hole.
Fisher (69) started the day in impressive fashion with an eagle on the second hole, courtesy a 45-feet putt, and was four-under at the turn. But on the back nine, he made a bogey on the 10th and a solitary birdie on the 16th hole to finish on 20-under par.
Last year, Fleetwood beat the reigning world No1 Dustin Johnson by one shot, kickstarting a successful season that culminated in him winning the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.
Johnson (70) finished on 14-under par this year, while former world No1 Rory McIlroy shot a 70 to tie for third place at 18-under par alongside Matthew Fitzpatrick (69).
Overnight joint leader Thomas Pieters (72) and winner of last week’s South African Open, England’s Chris Paisley (69) were tied fifth at 17-under 271.
His game has been largely perfect, he looks almost like the player of old, but Rory McIlory admits a first win in 16 months – and at a venue where he’s been oh so close, so many times – would build confidence hugely for the rest of 2018.
The Northern Irishman is certainly well placed to make a winning return from a three-month injury lay-off following a seven under par 65 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Saturday – placing him third, a shot behind joint leaders Thomas Pieters and Ross Fisher.
The four-time major winner has had a number of near misses on previous appearances in the UAE capital – he finished runner-up in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, as well as coming third in 2016 – and is keen to finally lift the trophy in his first competitive start since October.
“It would mean a lot to win on tour again,” admitted McIlroy, 28.
“I’ve had a lot of close calls here, I think about six top threes or something like that. I’ve never won my first start back out either.
“It would mean a lot. It’s felt like a while since I’ve won and just to give myself these chances; I gave myself a chance at the end of the year at Close House and wasn’t able to do it. I’m excited to get back on the horse and give myself another chance tomorrow.”
The four-time major winner had gone 50 holes without making a bogey before his run finally ended at 15 – it was the world number 11’s longest bogey-free run on the European Tour.
And the game plan for the final day is to keep doing what he’s been doing.
“Same as the last three days,” added McIlroy.
“Just go out and try and shoot the best score I possibly can. I felt really comfortable, really relaxed out there. I haven’t been looking at leaderboards too much, just been trying to play my game, and it’s going pretty well so far, so I’ll try and do the same thing.”
After 15, McIlroy chipped in for birdie two holes later at 17 and a 65 left him well placed to make his return to action a winning one, since ending his 2017 in October due to a niggling rib injury, although it also transpired that a slight heart irregularity was also discovered.
And although he is desperate to win to both stop the rot both in the larger sense and in Abu Dhabi, he is looking at the bigger picture.
“All in all it was another great round and another really good confidence builder, not just for this week but for the rest of the season, as well,” said McIlroy, who last won at the TOUR Championship in Atlanta in September, 2016.
“I’m really pleased. I said all week, I felt like this is where my game was in practise, but it’s always different trying to go from the range on to the golf course, and even in practise rounds, I felt like I was playing well.
“But it’s still different whenever you get a card in your hand and you’re in competitive play.
“But to see how I’ve played over the past three days and how comfortable I’ve been out there hitting certain shots and scoring and getting up-and-down, and just really getting my golf head back on. I’ve been really pleased with that part of it.”