The first Asian winner, a record score to par of -23 under and holding his nerve under the intense glare of two-time former champion and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy – Li Haotong’s victory at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic was utterly breath-taking.
Many may have expected the rising Chinese star to wilt under the pressure of a snapping chasing pack, which included a rejuvenated McIlroy.
One can only imagine what it must have been like for Li to try and hold his nerve on the final day, not only in the Dubai heat, but the intense glow of his more illustrious playing partner – winner of 13 tournaments on the European Tour to Li’s previous solitary triumph at the 2016 Volvo China Open.
But he never looked rattled, even as he bogeyed the first. A second at 10 as McIlroy birdied put the Northern Irishman two shots ahead and rom there you fully expected the more experienced man to cruise to his hat-trick title and first win in 16 months.
A third bogey followed at 12, but Li then came to life, birdieing four of the last six holes to sign for a closing 69 and post a record low event total of -23 under par – beating the previous mark of -22 under shared by McIlroy (2015), Stephen Gallacher (2013) and Thomas Bjorn (2001), earning victory by a single stroke.
It’s a win that will lift the Hunan native into the world’s top 50 – making Li more history as he becomes the first Chinese player to do so – with his position expected to be around 32 when the new rankings get released today.
Li, who admitted his phone had already “exploded” with messages on Saturday night, said: “It’s going to be big,” in response to a question about how big the reaction will be back home, a nation of more than 1.4 billion.
“Last night (Saturday), my phone is like, how you say, boom, it exploded. Seriously, I had so many messages, saying ‘Oh, Haotong’ and on the internet too. I don’t know where my phone is now.
“They said if I win this week, I’m going to break a lot of new records. So it was lucky I did.”
Li, who missed the cut last week in Abu Dhabi as he battled illness, will now head to his first Masters in April, having played everywhere but Augusta on his major bow last year.
“Last week I missed the cut, I had a hard time (in Abu Dhabi) but I just felt so fresh this week and it got me in very good position,” said Lee, who is hoping to continue making an impact at the big tournaments, having finished tied for third at The Open last July.
“It’s definitely going to give me a lot of confidence for the next few events and the rest of the year, especially for the Masters. I’ve never been there before, I’m looking forward to those big events.”
Despite the fact McIlroy has returned from a three-month injury break in ominous form – second place here coming on the back of third place in Abu Dhabi – he was left deflated at not adding a third Dubai crown to his 13 victories on the European Tour.
“The competitor in me is very disappointed right now,” said the 28-year-old, winner here in 2009 and 2015.
“I wanted to win. I always want to win and I just didn’t do enough when I needed to.
“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.
“It’s definitely hard to take right now, that’s how I’m feeling, but if someone had of told me at the start of the year you’d finish third and second your first two events, I’d say, yeah, I’d take that.”
Rory McIlroy was denied at the final hole as Li Haotong sprung a surprise at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic with a record 23-under par victory.
Li, the world No60, had only one once on the European Tour before – in 2016 at the Volvo China Open – but maintained his cool at Emirates Golf Club with a final round of 69.
McIlroy was again impressive over four days in Dubai after making his comeback in Abu Dhabi last week, but could only match Li’s round – including a birdie on the final hole – to finish one stroke behind the Chinese.
More to follow.
Rory McIlroy will go into the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic one shot off the lead after shooting a third-round 68 on Saturday.
The Northern Irishman trails China’s Li Haotong, who carded a 64 to reach 20 under par.
Alexander Levy – who enjoyed a hole-in-one at the fourth – and Haydn Porteous finished the day at 17 under, with Andy Sullivan a shot further back and David Horsey on 15 under. Tyrrell Hatton was among a group of eight players on 14 under.
Ahead of Sunday’s action, here’s a look at the groups and starting times for the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic.
7.18am: Matthieu Pavon, Daan Huizing
7.27am: Lee Slattery, Richard Sterne
7.36am: Daniel Im, Phachara Khongwatmai
7.45am: Stephen Gallacher, Todd Clements (Am)
7.54am: Lucas Bjerregaard, Mikko Korhonen
8.03am: Thomas Pieters, Romain Wattel
8.12am: Mikko Ilonen, Kiradech Aphibarnrat
8:21am: Gavin Green, Shubhankar Sharma
8:30am: Adrian Otaegui, Richie Ramsay
8.39am: Nino Bertasio, Matt Wallace
8.53am: Scott Jamieson, Anthony Wall
9.02am: Robert Karlsson, Ross Fisher
9.11am: Andrew Johnston, Matthew Southgate
9.20am: Bernd Wiesberger, Andres Romero
9.29am: Chris Hanson, Jamie Donaldson
9.38am: Ashley Chesters, Trevor Immelman
9.47am: Jason Scrivener, Maximilian Kieffer
9.56am: Sam Brazel, Ashun Wu
10.05am: Gregory Havret, Alejandro Canizares
10.14am: Edoardo Molinari, Sergio Garcia
10.28am: Dean Burmester, Pat Perez
10.37am: Nicolas Colsaerts, Scott Hend
10.46am: An Byeong-hun, Henrik Stenson
10.55am: Brett Rumford, Andrew Dodt
11.04am: Martin Kaymer, Tommy Fleetwood
11.13am: Lasse Jensen, Alexander Bjork
11.22am: Thomas Aiken, Miguel Angel Jimenez
11.31am: Thomas Detry, Ian Poulter
11.40am: Branden Grace, Chris Paisley
11.54am: Wang Jeung-hun, Rafa Cabrera Bello
12.03pm: Thorbjorn Olesen, David Lipsky
12.13pm: Tyrrell Hatton, Dylan Frittelli
12.23pm: Andy Sullivan, David Horsey
12.33pm: Haydn Porteous, Alexander Levy
12.43pm: Li Haotong, Rory McIlroy