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Li holds off McIlroy in Dubai duel


Chinese young gun Li Haotong went head to head with Northern Ireland's four-time major winner Rory McIlroy in the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday and, playing like a seasoned veteran with nerves of steel, the slender 22-year-old six-footer came through their tense, never-give-an-inch duel as a one-shot winner.

And what is more, he became the first Asian golfer ever to win this coveted title.

It spoke volumes about the fine quality of his play that he broke the tournament record in an elite event that has been won by some of the greatest names on the planet, not the least of them being Tiger Woods, Li's closing 3-under 69 and 23-under 72-hole total doing the trick at the famed Emirates Golf Club's Majlis course, the Middle East's first to be surfaced with grass.

It also said a lot about the quality of the field he defeated that on Monday, when the latest World Rankings are set to be released, it is certain that Li, the current World No 60, will become the first Asian golfer to rocket into that all-important Top 50 bubble that opens the door to the majors - probably in the No 32 spot.

It's no wonder then that Li was in an overjoyed shock mode when he said: "I'm overwhelmed. It was an incredible experience to play with (and beat) Rory. I gained a great deal of experience from him and this win will give me a lot of confidence and help me do better in the majors this year."

His best major performance to date earned him a third place in last year's Open Championship at Carnoustie.

McIlroy, now 27, newly-married, and playing for only the second time after a three-month break to help heal a long-standing rib injury, seemed about to take charge as everyone expected him to when he seized a two-shot lead from the overnight leader at the 10th.

But then, inexplicably, he saw an eagle putt that turned into a three-putt par on the par-5 13th and a bogey on the par 4 16th lose him the lead - and ultimately the game, his matching 69 and 266 total being one shot shy of a playoff.

He was still in a position to salvage a playoff with an eagle when he fired his second shot over water at the 18th green knowing Li was unlikely to take such a chance.

The Ulsterman made the green, but he left himself with a monster putt that was a bridge too far for the eagle he so badly needed for his birdie there was brilliantly matched by Li.

The young Chinaman layed up to take the water out of play, put his third some 10 feet from a pin position dangerously close to the water with an exquisite chip and then, seemingly with ice in his veins, rolled home the winner with deadly precision.

Earlier, thanks to a sizzling 3rd round 64 as against McIlroy's 68, Le had started the final day one shot clear of the strongly-favoured Northern Irishman only to quickly slip back into a tie when he bogeyed the first hole.

Both antagonists birdied the 3rd and 7th holes and were still locked together when they reached the turn, but at the 10th McIlroy made a move that looked a set to take him home to victory when a solid birdie there gave him a two-shot swing.

This when Li was forced to drop out after driving into an unplayable lie in some thick bushes.

At about this time England's Tyrrell Hatton briefly looked as if he might also get into the act after making four birdies in just six holes on the back nine, but he finished on 20-under after first missing a great birdie chance from four feet on the 17th and then finding water with his second shot on the 18th hole.

McIlroy bogeyed the par 3 11th, but it mattered not because Li immediately bogeyed 12.

Fate, however, was to be unkind to McIlroy who was to pick up two more late bogeys and in the end had to bow to the stronger finishing Li whose staggering 20-foot birdie putt under huge pressure at the 12th would be the final nail in his coffin.

"It was incredible! "Li enthused afterwards. "I just didn't think I could make that putt on 15. It was huge. I think that was the turning point. And also on 18, I didn't think I would make that one, either. Wow, was I happy in the end," he added McIlroy was obviously disappointed with his finish after a week of good golf.

"From being two ahead standing on the 11th tee, to being, you know, level going into 16th, I don't know .. there were a couple of bad shots, a couple of poor decisions, a couple of mental errors - and a few tentative putts out there, as well," said McIlroy, who finished third in Abu Dhabi last week in his comeback tournament and has now been winless since winning the 2016 Tour Championship in the US.

"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.

"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."

Hatton's sparkling 66 earned him third place on 20-under with American-born Frenchman Alexander Levy (70) also alone in fourth place at 19-under and the in-form Englishman, Chris Paisley (69), a recent winner of the BMW South African Open, in 4th place, two shots clear of a 12-man logjam that included Scot Richie Ramsay who closed with a best-of-the-day 64.

(Par 72)

265 Li Haotong (CHN) 66 66 64 69
266 Rory McIlroy (NIR) 65 64 68 69
268 Tyrrell Hatton (ENG) 64 72 66 66
269 Alexander Levy (FRA) 67 67 65 70
271 Chris Paisley (ENG) 65 69 68 69
272 Richie Ramsay (SCO) 70 69 69 64, Chris Hanson (ENG) 67 70 70 65, Jason Scrivener (AUS) 70 68 68 66, Henrik Stenson (SWE) 70 64 70 68, An Byeong hun (KOR) 72 67 65 68, Tommy Fleetwood (ENG) 69 69 66 68, Alexander Bjork (SWE) 65 68 70 69, Ian Poulter (ENG) 68 70 65 69, Wang Jeung hun (KOR) 69 66 67 70, Rafa Cabrera Bello (ESP) 69 69 64 70, David Lipsky (USA) 69 66 67 70, Dylan Frittelli (RSA) 69 67 66 70 , Andy Sullivan (ENG) 67 70 63 72
273 Martin Kaymer (GER) 68 69 67 69, Miguel Angel Jimenez (ESP) 66 68 69 70, Haydn Porteous (RSA) 66 68 65 74
274 Adrian Otaegui (ESP) 70 69 69 66, Anthony Wall (ENG) 63 73 72 66, Sam Brazel (BRA) 68 70 68 68, Alejandro Canizares (ESP) 67 68 70 69, Dean Burmester (RSA) 67 69 69 69 , Thomas Detry (BEL) 68 66 69 71, David Horsey (ENG) 63 70 68 73.

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