Rory McIlroy heaps praise on double Abu Dhabi winner Tommy Fleetwood

Tommy Fleetwood holds aloft the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship trophy for the second year running. Picture: AP
Tommy Fleetwood holds aloft the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship trophy for the second year running. Picture: AP
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A brilliant back nine of 30 in windy conditions saw Tommy Fleetwood cement his position as one of golf’s growing forces as the Englishman successfully defended the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, denying Rory McIlroy’s brave bid to make a winning return after a three-month absence.

It was a satisfactory week’s work back at the coalface for McIlroy as the 28-year-old broke par in all four rounds to post an 18-under-par 270 total, finished joint-third and, in general, took nothing but encouragement from not only his game but also his health after being hampered throughout last season by a rib injury.

Rory McIlroy shakes hands with caddie Harry Diamond after finishing joint-third in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Picture: Getty Images

Rory McIlroy shakes hands with caddie Harry Diamond after finishing joint-third in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Picture: Getty Images

However, he was the first to doff his cap to Fleetwood after the man who took his game to another level last season to win the Race to Dubai after starting 2017 sitting 100th in the world

wasted no time showing that he intends to use that success as a springboard for another big year.

Fleetwood, who turned 27 on Friday, trailed compatriot Ross Fisher by five shots at the turn in the final round before picking up birdies at the tenth, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th and 18th in blistering closing burst to join both Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey as a multiple winner of this event.

With a 22-under-par total, the Southport man finished two shots clear of Fisher (69), with another talented Englishman, Matthew Fitzpatrick, closing with the same score as he ended up alongside McIlroy on a day when world No 1 Dustin Johnson (70) had to settle for a share of ninth spot.

“I feel a lot more emotional than last year,” admitted the winner. “I don’t know why. I just really wanted to win this one. I had the year of my life last year. I know everybody has been talking about it and just backing it up is the next big thing.

“To keep it going and hit form early is great. To validate my position as European No 1 straight away is nice and satisfying. It’s a weird feeling coming to defend a trophy because it’s yours and you don’t want to give it away. So keeping hold of it for another year is also very nice.”

Make no mistake, this performance was mighty impressive. Perhaps even more so than his victory here 12 months ago, his French Open win later in the year and also the gutsy display he produced in the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai to hold off an in-form Justin Rose in the battle to be Europe’s No 1.

“It’s nice to show to yourself that you are still moving forward,” added Fleetwood, who could rise as high as tenth in the updated world rankings on the back of his fourth European Tour triumph. “That score around this golf course is very, very good, so I’m very pleased.”

McIlroy had presented Fleetwood with a birthday cake on Friday after their round together and the four-time major winner showed his class once more by the gracious manner he accepted defeat, even though this was the eighth time he’d finished fifth or better here without managing to land the title.

“It’s incredible,” he said of how much Fleetwood has improved in the last 12 months. “He had a great year last year and, as defending champion, to put that round of golf together out there today - I mean, 65 in those conditions and shooting six-under on the back nine when needed to - is seriously impressive.

“He’s a great addition to the world of golf, a great addition to the European Tour and will be a great addition to the Ryder Cup team in September.”

Based on this effort, it surely won’t be long before McIlroy wins again, having last tasted success 16 months ago and ending up empty-handed last season for the first time since 2008. “I’m really happy with how I played,” he admitted of his first outing since the Dunhill Links last October, having taken the decision to shut down his 2017 campaign early to get properly prepared for this season.

“It could have been a little bit better today. I was a little bit scrappy. But, overall, I’m really happy how I played this week. My game is in really good shape and I saw some really, really positive signs. So I’m looking forward to next week in Dubai and obviously looking forward to the rest of the season.”