He’s Sheffield-born with nerves of steel. Danny Willett looks a certainty to make his Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine in September, when another Englishman, Andy Sullivan, is also on course to be a welcome newcomer in the European ranks. The pair fought out a thrilling grandstand finish - it also involved Spaniard Rafa Cabrera-Bello - in the last round of the $2.65m Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Sullivan, surely the most ebullient character in golf for some time, punched the air in delight and let out a mighty roar after holing a ten-foot birdie putt on the 18th green at the Emirates Golf Club. Cabrera-Bello, the 2012 winner, then joined him on 18-under-par after matching Sullivan’s closing 4, though he almost made eagle with a 25-foot attempt from just off the back edge that trickled agonisingly past the right edge of the hole.
A play-off loomed but Willett, having chiselled out a one-shot lead heading into the final circuit thanks to brilliant back-to-back 65s and stretching that to three at one point on the magnificent Majlis Course, wasn’t to be denied. In went a 12-foot birdie putt for a closing 69 and a one-shot success.
A fourth European Tour title triumph - they’ve all come in different countries after previous successes in Germany (2012 BMW International), South Africa (2015 Nedbank Challenge) and Switzerland (2015 Omega European Masters) - earned the 28-year-old a £306,431 pay-day. He could move into the world’s top 15 from 20th and that place in Darren Clarke’s Ryder Cup side later in the year is close to being cemented already.
“Coming down the back nine in contention it’s something that you can’t pay for in life; you’ve got to earn it,” said an ecstatic Willett. “You’d love to win by five or six every time you win, but when you win like that in that fashion, it feels that little bit extra special. It’s nice to know that I can dig deep.”
If the Ryder Cup qualifying race stopped right now, Willett would be in the team along with four fellow Englishmen - Sullivan, Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose and Chris Wood. “I think that the England lads - the likes of Sully, Woody, Fitzy and myself - are feeding off each other and I think for the next few years, we’re going to be the ones that are trying to beat each other, which is good,” said Willett.
A three-time winner last season, this was another eye-catching performance from Sullivan. He’s a bit like Leicester City. You expect him to fall away but hangs in there. His par save at the 16th, where he was way right in the desert off the tee, still around 120 yards from the pin in two but then holed a 20-footer, summed up what this guy is all about. “It was fantastic,” said the 28-year-old Midlander of being involved in such a captivating contest. “It bodes well for the rest of the year. But fair play to Dan, who is a quality player, for holing what was a tough putt.”
As he’d predicted on the eve of the event, there was no hiding Rory McIlroy’s disappointment as the world No 2 missed out on a successful title defence. At the same time, however, the 26-year-old is far from being in the doldrums as he heads to America to start the build up for this year’s Masters. In eight rounds in the Middle East, McIlroy broke par seven times and was a combined 29-under-par. Even the odd round out - the second circuit here - was a level-par effort.
“The game feels in decent shape, though I still have a few things to work on,” said the four-time major winner after signing off with a 65 for a 15-under-par 273 total, finishing joint-sixth. “My wedge play and short game around the greens has been good, but I’m struggling with the driver a little bit, so just want to try and work on that during my week off and get ready for LA (the Northern Trust Open at Riviera) in a couple week’s time.”
He then tees up in two events in Florida - the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens then the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami. “First and foremost, I’m looking forward to spending a week in my own bed,” added McIlroy of heading to his home in Florida, having spent just one night there since September. “It will be also good starting over there with three really good, tough events. The scoring is relatively tough in those three tournaments, so I’m looking forward to getting into that.
“It’s been nice to shake the rust off these last couple of weeks. It gives me a good understanding of what I need to do going into the next few weeks. I still feel like there’s a lot to work on going into the next few weeks and hopefully I can put some good work in next week and feel sharp going into Riviera.”
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