RORY McIlroy ended Stephen Gallacher’s winning run in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic as he cemented his position as world No 1 just as Tiger Woods is about to drop out of the top 50.
While Gallacher, bidding to make it a hat-trick of triumphs in the ‘Major of the Middle East’, put another great show on the Majlis Course by finishing third, McIlroy didn’t need to be firing on all cylinders to come out on top at the Emirates Golf Club.
A closing 70 gave him a 22-under-par total for a three-shot win over Swede Alex Noren (65), with Gallacher, who came home in three-under to sign off with a 69, next on his own after playing partner Andy Sullivan missed from five feet to drop a shot at the last.
It was McIlroy’s second success in the event, having recorded his maiden European Tour triumph here in 2009. This victory also took his tally into double figures on the circuit’s International Schedule, where his last seven starts now read 1-1-1-2-2-2-1.
“I sat in front of you guys on Wednesday saying that I didn’t want to finish second – even though it’s not a bad thing – any more and it’s nice to be able to back up what I say with my performance on the course,” said McIlroy, who only had two bogeys in 72 holes.
He will now take an enforced break from the game as his row with a former management company is played out in the High Court in Dublin starting tomorrow, though McIlroy is not expected to take the witness box until the end of this week at the earliest.
However, the 25-year-old is delighted to have opened his 2015 account at just the second time of asking and is licking his lips at what lies ahead on the golf course, including a chance to complete a career Grand Slam in The Masters at Augusta National in April.
Asked what message he had sent out with this success, McIlroy replied: “I guess that I come to win every week. It’s not like I’m out here trying to send any sort of message to people. But, if they are going to beat me, they are going to have to play well.”
The four-times major winner is confident his change of scenery over the next couple of weeks won’t result in lots of good work – both playing and practising – here in the United Arab Emirates over the past few weeks being undone.
“Let me enjoy this for an hour or two,” he said, laughing, to being asked if he was already starting to think about his trip to the Irish capital, before talking about how he’ll be trying to keep his game “ticking over” in between court visits.
“I don’t mind that the Masters is still a couple of months away,” he insisted. “I feel like I can keep this run of form going and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t. I’m comfortable with my game. I’m happy with how I’m swinging it and it’s just a matter of keeping on top of things by working hard and not getting complacent.”
Four ahead overnight, McIlroy’s lead was increased immediately when his closest challenger, Dane Morten Orum Madsen, knifed a bunker shot through the first green, put his next one back in the trap and started with a triple-bogey 7.
Also playing in the final group, Lee Westwood briefly threatened to make a fight out of it as he picked up three shots in the first five holes to close within four, only to see his challenge killed off by a second visit to the water and second double-bogey 6 in two days at the ninth.
It wasn’t until Noren birdied the last – the Swede, who only recently returned from a wrist injury, had Prestwick’s Mark Crane on his bag – that the gap closed to three, with McIlroy admitting he had played within himself so as to ensure he wouldn’t lose a big last-day lead like Charl Schwartzel and Martin Kaymer had done in recent weeks.
“Seeing that the breeze was up, it was going to be difficult for anyone to really put together a low score, especially on that front nine,” he said. “I just wanted to keep my ball in play and not make any mistakes. It wasn’t the best round that I’ve played this year, but I got the job done and that’s the most important thing. Coming off a good performance in Abu Dhabi as well, I’ve got some confidence and momentum on my side heading into the next couple months.”
While no longer the champion here, there was no certainly no feeling of disappointment for Gallacher. Rightly so, too, given he was beaten on this occasion by the best player on the planet and, in addition to that, has now finished 2nd-1st-1st-3rd in the last four years in this event.
Coming alive – as he always does here – on the back nine, the 40-year-old almost holed-in-one at the 11th, where his wedge horse-shoed out, before chipping in from 45 yards across the green at the 12th.
“Realistically, we were all playing for second place today, as Rory is pretty good from the front,” admitted Gallacher. “But I’m delighted to have come here again and put myself in contention again as the defending champion. That’s all you can ask for, really.”
In a bizarre scene, Marc Warren holed out for a closing birdie – it secured him a share of 13th – after a band and group of dancers appeared prematurely on the 18th green. “It was brilliant,” joked the Scot. “They walked across the back of it but, thankfully, I was pin high so wouldn’t have been distracted with my 15-foot putt.”
As in 2014, golf looks as though it will be playing to McIlroy’s tune again this year.