Rory McIlroy sinks birdie on 18th to hold off Reed and win Dubai Desert Classic

<span>Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

From Teegate to Treegate to a denouement that was well worth the wait. The most extraordinary of Dubai Desert Classic weeks ended in wholly appropriate fashion on Monday. For Rory McIlroy, a third Desert Classic title and victory on his first start of 2023. The world No 1 has solidified his position.

Even at this early juncture, it feels impossible to ignore the sense McIlroy will arrive at Augusta National in April with his finest chance yet to win the Masters and therefore complete a grand slam of majors.

Related: DP World Tour clarifies rules after Patrick Reed penalty drop controversy

Magnolia Lane, though, can wait. This was a tournament that began with a furore involving McIlroy and Patrick Reed. It concluded with the same pair jousting for the trophy. When McIlroy’s role as the unofficial voice of golf’s establishment against the rebel LIV tour, of which Reed is a part, is factored in it became easy to sense this meant more than a trophy.

“Did I want to win, yes,” McIlroy said. “Was there added incentive because of who was up there? Absolutely. But I want to win for me. I want to win for my legacy and leaving my mark on the game. So it’s great that there’s an ancillary benefit to me winning instead of someone else.

“Mentally, it was very tough today. I felt like I could have let my emotions get in the way. I expended a lot of mental energy trying to focus on myself and focus on shooting a score and trying to reach a number.”

Reed had drawn attention over whether he had correctly identified his ball in the branches of a palm tree during round three. Had Reed usurped McIlroy, we would be hearing rather a lot more about that. Instead, McIlroy publicly defended him. “I felt it was fine. Kev Feeney is a really experienced referee and he’s not going to do anything wrong.

“Had it of been anyone else in the field it would have been a non-issue, but because of certain things in the past, people brought some stuff up, which is maybe unfair in some ways. I’ve stood and defended Patrick in some of the controversies.”

Reed is aware of the court of social media casting aspersions, but insists he did no wrong on the 17th on Sunday. “I’ve looked through the binoculars, identified any golf ball and I explained what my markings were to the rules official” said the 2018 Masters champion. “He looked through it and he identified it exactly the same way I did.”

For much of the final round, McIlroy struggled. Reed was inspired, marching to a one-shot lead – he had started three adrift – after McIlroy bogeyed the 15th. Reed’s first dropped stroke of the day, at 16, restored parity before McIlroy landed what looked the major blow with a birdie at the penultimate hole.

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What happened next allowed McIlroy to snatch glory from the jaws of disaster. Last year, the 72nd hole of the Desert Classic cost McIlroy victory. As his drive rolled towards the pond, another painful finale looked on the cards. McIlroy’s ball stopped short of water, but in a treacherous lie, from where he could only advance it 100 yards on the par five.

Reed’s birdie in the group immediately ahead meant McIlroy needed to match that four to avoid a playoff. The 33-year-old leapt with unbridled joy after his curling 15ft putt found the bottom of the cup. Reed’s 65 and 18 under par aggregate was beaten by McIlroy’s 68 for minus 19.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful to everyone else that played this week,” said McIlroy when asked what percentage he felt like he was playing at. “I could be a lot better. The most satisfying thing is I haven’t had my best, far from it, and to be able to win when you don’t have your best, that’s the holy grail of what we are trying to do.”

Third place belonged to Lucas Herbert at 16 under. Ian Poulter’s share of sixth would have stung given he took seven at the last. Henrik Stenson blasted through the field with a 64 to tie eighth. As Poulter, Stenson, Reed and the LIV contingent headed for this week’s event in Saudi Arabia, McIlroy was the darling of Dubai once more. Somehow the fractured world of golf felt much a better place.