DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Haotong Li held off Rory McIlroy to win the Dubai Desert Classic Sunday by a single stroke, denying the Northern Irishman's bid to win his first title in 17 months.
Haotong finished on a tournament record 23-under-par 265 after a final-round three under 69 to win by one shot over McIlroy, who also shot a 69.
The 22-year-old from China made a ten-foot birdie putt on the last after McIlroy had ramped up the pressure by reaching the par-5 18th hole in two shots.
Haotong started the day one ahead of his Northern Ireland rival and that advantage was quickly gone on the first hole when he made a bogey.
However, it was a bogey on the par-5 10th by Haotong that led to a two-shot swing when McIlroy made a birdie there, and the advantage remained with the four-time major champion when his bogey on the 11th was matched with another dropped shot by Haotong on the 12th.
But the momentum swung Haotong's way when he dropped a 20-feet birdie putt on the par-3 15th from the back fringe and McIlroy made a bogey on the 16th after hitting his three-wood off the tee into the waste area.
Both players then birdied the last two holes.
Haotong's second European Tour win will lift him to around 32nd in the rankings, making him the first Chinese player to break into the top-50.
"Well, for some reason, after making that bogey on the 12th hole, I was just so relaxed. I was two shots behind at that point and I just wanted to have fun," he said.
"I was lucky, I made birdie on the 13th, and he made par. On the 15th green, for some reason, I just felt so good down there. Felt so comfortable. And also got lucky with that putt. I think it was the most important shot of the round."
McIlroy was making his comeback to golf after a three-month layoff.
"If someone had told me at the start of the year you'd finish third (in Abu Dhabi) and second in your first two events, I would have said I'd take that," said McIlroy. "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."
England's Tyrrell Hatton finished third on 20 under after hitting his second shot into the water on the 18th hole, while France's Alex Levy was fourth with a 269.
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