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 breathtaking.
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 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 from 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 on Monday.
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 Li, 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 have 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.”
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