Li Haotong proved once again that he is the man for the big occasion by out-duelling Rory McIlroy down the stretch at Emirates Golf Club to claim his second European Tour title at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

His first victory saw him pull a final round 64 out of the bag to roar to victory on home soil at the Volvo China Open and he turned on the style again at last year’s Open Championship when he closed with a spellbinding 63 to take third place at Royal Birkdale.

This time, he was up against four-time Major champion McIlroy and the Northern Irishman looked like he meant business, overcoming a one-stroke deficit to lead the Chinese by two after 10 holes. But as the heat was turned up, Li caught fire, picking up shots on the 13th, 15th, 17th and 18th to sign for 69 beating McIlroy by a stroke at 23 under par.

“I think today I handled the pressure quite well, especially the last four holes, become a winner here, so I’m quite happy,” said an understated Li who breaks into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after the victory which means he will tee it up in the Masters in April for the first time. “My parents and coach always told me, just keep doing what you’re doing and good things will come. The last year I’ve been playing very decent, very solid. I’ve had a few chances to catch a trophy but unfortunately not managed it. I missed the cut last week (in Abu Dhabi) and that was a little bit of a hard time for me.

“It’s definitely going to give me a lot of confidence for next few events and the rest of the year. I’m looking forward to the big events, especially the Masters, I’ve never been before.”

McIlroy himself birdied the Majlis’ last two holes to match Haotong’s 69 but after dropping shots at the 11th and 16th, and three putting for par on the 13th, he admitted his frustration at not being able to add to his two Desert Classic crowns.

“From being two ahead standing on the 11th tee to being level going into 16, I just don’t know,” he said.
“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, made two good birdies. 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.”

Despite his obvious disappointment McIlroy admitted that there was much to be positive about after coming back from a three-month injury lay off and posting a third place in Abu Dhabi last week followed by a runner up spot in Dubai.

“If someone had 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.”

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