“P***** off” was how he summed up squandering a two-shot lead with eight holes to play in being pipped by China’s Haotong Li in his bid for a record-equalling third victory in the Omega Desert Classic.
In fairness, Li ended up a worthy winner at Emirates Golf Club, where the 22-year-old birdied three out of the last four holes to close with a 69, setting a new tournament record for the event with an impressive 23-under-par 265 total.
It was his second European Tour victory and sees him become the first Chinese player to break into the world’s top 50. “Happy, incredible,” he replied to being asked to describe his emotions.
However, this was one that got away from McIlroy, the sting from which will feel particularly painful due to the fact he let a golden opportunity to taste victory for the first time in 16 months - his last success was in the Tour Championship in Atlanta in September 2016 - slip from his grasp.
When a two-shot swing went in the 28-year-old’s favour as he birdied the par-5 tenth and Li ran up a bogey after being forced to take a penalty drop from a bush, it looked as though McIlroy was destined to taste success just two events into his eagerly-awaited return following a three-month break.
That he didn’t was more down to his own slackness than that strong finish by his playing partner. McIlroy, for example, shouldn’t have been anywhere near the bunker he found at the short 11th, costing him a bogey.
Having restored a two-shot advantage with a solid par-4 at the tough 12th, he also shouldn’t have walked off the 13th with a par after leaving himself with a short iron into the green following a majestic drive. He left long eagle putt woefully short and opened the door again for Li by failing to match his 4.
The Chinese player, who closed with a 63 to finish third in last year’s Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, then holed a 25-footer from off the green for a birdie-2 at the 15th to move into a tie for the lead. The overnight leader, he was back in front a hole later.
After pushing his drive into the desert, McIlroy took on a risky-looking shot rather than giving himself a chance to save par from the fairway. That led to a bogey before both players in the final group birdied the 17th, a driveable par-4, to leave Li a shot ahead.
McIlroy’s chance of at least forcing a play-off increased after Li found the left rough with his tee shot and hat to lay up, but he showed nerves of steel to roll in a 15-footer for birdie, which McIlroy matched to also close with a 69.
In eight rounds, the Ulsterman has been a combined 40-under-par - he was 18-under in finishing joint-third behind Tommy Fleetwood in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship - and that sort of form augurs well for the season ahead. But this one will definitely hurt for a couple of days.
“After birdieing 10 to go two ahead, I thought I was obviously in the driver’s seat but had a bogey out of nowhere on 11 after a bad 9-iron there,” he admitted. “Then the 3-putt on 13, those were the two key holes of the tournament, really, even though there was a bad tee shot on 16.
“From being two ahead standing on the 11th tee to being level going into 16, it was a couple of bad shots, a couple of poor decisions, a couple of mental errors, a few tentative putts out there, as well.
“I kept leaving myself in places where I couldn’t really give it a run at the hole because they were downhill, downgrain, downwind. So I didn’t really leave it in the best spots to be aggressive with my putts.
“But I tried until the very end, making two good birdies. I made him win it in the end, which was all I could do, and he played very well on the way in, birdieing three of the last four. I just wish I could get a couple of those holes back.
“It was just one of those days where I was sort of fighting everything a little bit. If someone had of told me at the start of the year you’d finish third and second your first two events, I’d say, yeah, I’d take that. But being in the positions I’ve been in and having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it’s a little difficult.
“The competitor in me is very disappointed right now. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn’t do enough when I needed to.”
Double Dunhill Links champion Tyrrell Hatton cemented his position in the Ryder Cup qualification battle by closing with 66 to finish third on 20-under, a shot ahead of Frenchman Alexander Levy, who is bidding to face the Americans on home soil in September.
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