Was the story in Dubai Victor Hovland’s victory, or was it Rory McIlroy’s failure to win?
While Victor Hovland and Richard Brand were both sat in the clubhouse watching on, finished their 72 regulation, and waited to find out if they would head back out for a playoff or share a tie for second place, McIlroy was playing his tee-shot on the 17th. A drivable par four, with the reachable par-five 18th still to play, and he was level on 12 under with the clubhouse leaders.
Although nothing is a certainty in golf, it was looking very likely that McIlroy would play his final two holes in the one-under-par he needed to win the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic. Especially as Hovland and Brand had played the last two holes eagle, then birdie and birdie-birdie, respectively.
Hovland and Brand would have been crossing all fingers and toes, hoping for a playoff between them and Rory, but at this stage, they would undoubtedly have been expecting the Northern Irishman to close it out without the need for a playoff. The odds were definitely in his favour to do so. McIlroy, though not only ensured there would be a playoff, his wild collapse ensured it would go ahead without him.
McIlroy’s problems began with a wild drive out to the left off the tee on the 17th. After much debate with his caddie, Harry Diamond, McIlroy opted to hack the ball out of the junk and try to get up and down for par. This decision turned out to be justified as he successfully managed this following a brilliant pitch, leaving a short and straightforward putt.
McIlroy oped for his 3-wood off the tee on the par-five final hole. His second shot was also with his 3-wood, but this shot effectively cost Mcilroy another trophy in Dubai – it sliced right and landed in the water.
The former world number one did give himself a chance to make par and force a three-way playoff, but his 15-foot attempt lipped out, and McIlroy finished third.
This is the second time that four-time major winner McIlroy has collapsed down the stretch in Dubai in the last few months. In November, he bogeyed three of his final four holes at the DP World Tour Championship.
24-Year-old Norwegian Hovland won the playoff with Brand with a birdie on the first playoff hole, but not long before, he looked out of contention after three-putting and bogeying the 15th. Still, he went on to play the final three holes birdie-eagle-birdie in a burst of great play, which he later said was “the best of his life.”
Hovland’s drive, which reached the green on the 17th en-route to an eagle, was a thing of beauty.
“I didn’t even know how far 17 was playing,” Hovland said afterwards. “But I knew that it was playing downwind and that I had to give it all that I had. I hit a little high toe on the face, which was pretty nice, and just launched a little higher, knuckled a little bit. I don’t know where it pitched but probably just short of the green and released to 30 feet.
“I knew standing over the putt that it was to tie the lead,” he went on to say. “But I also knew that the guys behind still had the [reachable par-5] 13 and some easier holes to make birdie on. So I knew I probably had to birdie the last as well to get them thinking a little bit.”
Hovland was right; he needed that birdie on the 18th to force the playoff with Brand, the surprising winner of last years British Masters: His first victory in his 478th European Tour event.
One playoff hole was all it took for Hovland to secure the winners’ cheque with a two-putt birdie, his sixth career victory and his second victory on the DP World Tour.
“I didn’t really think this was possible going into today,” Hovland said afterwards. “I knew I had to shoot a really low number, but a lot of things had to go my way and thankfully, they did.”
Hovland’s victory in the sun earned him the $1,360,000 first prize, but was it really the best finish of his life like he initially claimed? On second thought, it appears not.
“I do distinctly remember a little match that I had in college,” Hovland said. “We used to do a little Ryder Cup thing, me and Kristopher Ventura against Zach Bauchou and Sam Stevens. We were basically playing for dinner in stroke play best-ball. It was getting dark and pretty feisty. We all didn’t want to lose, believe me. Anyway, we were down three strokes with three to go, and I finished birdie, birdie and then an eagle on the last to beat them by a shot. They were so mad, and it just brought me so much joy. So I will always remember that one. It was pretty satisfying.”
It wasn’t as lucrative, though.
See also: Why Does Thai Golfing Sensation Patty Tavatanakit Warm Up the Way She Does?