What a way to win it: last green, all square, with a 12-foot putt for glory. Get in there, said Danny Willett’s smile as his ball found the centre of the cup to claim one of the European Tour’s big ones, the Dubai Desert Classic.
A closing 69 for a 19-under total secured his fourth professional victory and propelled him into the world’s top 15, a fitting station for a player who contested the Walker Cup in the same team as Rory McIlroy and who, nine years later, is beginning to keep him company as a pro.
Holding on to a lead in the final round when the field is closing is one of the great tests of golf. The two-shot advantage with which Willett started the day was finally erased at the last hole by Andy Sullivan and Rafael Cabrera-Bello, who both holed birdie putts to share the lead on 18 under par.
Having seen his tee shot at the par-five 18th roll through the fairway into the rough, Willett was denied a chance to approach the green in two. When he reached for the wedge for his third he knew Cabrera-Bello was putting for eagle and had to drill it close. It turned out to be just close enough.
“I’m absolutely delighted; great way to start the season,” he said. “I had to keep going all day to keep off Sully and Rafa. To hole that putt at the end was brilliant. I had a pretty good line and my caddie said, ‘Just keep your head down and hit it’. I felt like I showed some real guts today, and to get up and down from 95 yards was fantastic.”
McIlroy ripped a closing 65 to finish in a tie for sixth place on 15 under par. The return of freaky Friday, the day that cursed him throughout 2013, when he flirted with a missed cut before shooting a 72, ultimately cost him.
Given this was only his second outing of the year after an eight-week lay-off, McIlroy cannot be too disappointed at failing to defend his crown. He played the outward nine in level par all week and came home in 15 under, including 18 birdies, the best of the week.
“It’s been nice to shake the rust off these last couple of weeks. It gives me a good understanding of what I need to do going into the next few weeks,” McIlroy said. “It’s been a real helpful exercise in that way. It would have been nice to come away with a win, but it’s been a couple of solid performances.”
He now heads back to his Florida home, where he has spent only one night since September, to continue his build-up to the first major of the season, the Masters, in April. He makes his 2016 bow on the PGA tour next week with a maiden entry at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera in Los Angeles. Before that it’s a week in his own bed.
“I still feel like there’s a lot to work on going into the next few weeks and, hopefully, I can put some good work in next week and feel sharp going into Riviera,” he said. “I need to work on my driving and my putting, but if everything else can stay where it is I feel like I should get a good run in the States. It’s been a week of what could have been. There was a lot of really good golf in there, but I just made a few too many mistakes as well.”
Willett’s victory, delivered under the nose of Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, Darren Clarke, will doubtless help shape his thinking ahead of the meeting with the United States at Hazeltine National in September. Sullivan’s charge through the week after starting with a double bogey on Thursday reinforced his claims, as did the performance of a third Englishman, Chris Wood, who birdied the last for a 69 to close in a tie for eighth on 14 under par.