Rory McIlroy stages biggest comeback of career to win record fourth Dubai Desert Classic

Northern Irish professional golfer Rory McIlroy wins the final match of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic 2024 Golf Tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on January 21, 2024.
Rory McIlroy completed a record fourth victory at the Dubai Desert Classic - Getty Images/Waleed Zein

Rory McIlroy is refusing to get carried away about his Masters chances despite making history on Sunday with his fourth Dubai Desert Classic crown. If the Dubai Invitational seven days previously was the one that got away, then this was the one McIlroy refused to allow to get away.

On the previous weekend, a late three-putt from two feet and a hook into the water on the last saw him hand the title to Tommy Fleetwood. But this time, it was the world No 2 overhauling the front-runners.

McIlroy was 10 behind at the halfway point at The Emirates Golf Club and was seemingly out of the hunt. But with a nine-under 63 in the third round and a 70 in the final round, he reached 14-under to beat Pole Adrian Meronk by a shot.

It was the biggest comeback win of his career – at the 2010 Wells Fargo Championship, he prevailed on US soil for the first time having been nine shots behind after 36-holes – and together with his runner-up finish at Dubai Creek, bodes so well for the year ahead and more immediately, his challenge to become just the sixth player to complete a career slam of every major tournament.

Except, McIlroy has been in this position before and knows that April in Georgia is much, much different to the United Arab Emirates in January. Others can and will look at his form and big up his hopes of at last securing a green jacket. But not McIlroy.

“Look, Augusta is still a long way away in golfing terms,” McIlroy said. “A lot can change in two and a half months. But it’s always nice to get a win and it really can sort of act as a nice springboard into the rest of the year. But remember, I started well last year with the win here.”

Rory McIlroy plays a shot
The only major has yet to win is the Masters - Getty Images/David Cannon

Indeed, he did, but just nine weeks later the Northern Irishman was cutting a distraught figure as he left Augusta having missed the cut. McIlroy will head to the PGA Tour – where he makes his first start of 2024 at Pebble Beach in two weeks time – recognising that his game is far from perfect.

“Listen, I know it’s a great platform to build from and I know I’m playing good golf,” McIlroy said. “But there’s still a couple of misses off the tee left. One got me on 18 last week. I missed a tee-shot left on 13 today which cost me a shot, and then one on 16, which nearly cost me a shot. So a couple little things still to work on but these weeks are great. You learn a lot from them.”

What he would give for his putting to be in this nick when he reaches those cathedral pines in Georgia. For the first two rounds, he was, at best, average on the greens. But then a video arrived from putting coach Brad Faxon, who was watching back in Florida.

“Fax sent it across without a prompt from me,” McIlroy explained. “He just said, ‘look, I hate bothering you when you’re at a tournament, but I just saw a couple of things’. It’s actually the exact same thought with my putting that I had at the 2022 Tour Championship. I ended up going on to win that, as well. I definitely putted better on the weekend.”

Yet this victory also highlighted his battling abilities. He quickly overhauled Cameron Young – the American who fell away with a 74 to finish third – but just when he appeared to be cruising, Meronk pulled within one down the stretch. However, McIlroy hung tough and had the comfort of being able to make a safe par down the 18th to collect the £1.2 million first prize.

McIlroy is too often portrayed as not being up for the fight and after last week there were the inevitable disparaging comments concerning his competitive will. This gutsy success surely has put his detractors in their place – for now.

“I think people made a bigger deal of it than it was,” McIlroy said. “You know, it was a couple of bad mistakes at inopportune times. Over 72 holes, you can’t look at two instances of bad whenever the rest of it was very, very good. Today was tricky and was one of those days where there wasn’t a ton of fireworks just because the course was so difficult. But I held on as best as I could.”

With his quartet of Desert Classic trophies, McIlroy has left Ernie Els behind in the record books. McIlroy adores the Majlis Course and adores the area as a whole. “I feel like the arc of my career and my time in Dubai have tracked very closely,” he said. “This is one region I’ve won more than anywhere else in my professional career. I have a fantastic connection with this city and it helps me stay relaxed and play some good golf.”

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