From the brink on Friday to mounting a serious challenge on Sunday, Rory McIlroy was in the end pleased simply to have contested a full Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The four-time major champion, a regular contender in the capital, made the cut right on the number at the tournament’s inaugural run at Yas Links – he even required a closing birdie – but by mid-afternoon in his final round had vaulted to within two shots of the summit.
Already 1-under for the day by the time he reached the par-4 ninth, McIlroy chipped in from range for eagle, then added three birdies in the next four holes to climb to 8-under for the tournament.
However, a dropped shot on 14 and two more at 17 and 18 put paid to his outside chances of finally taking home the title. In his previous nine appearances in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy had eight top threes without ever landing the trophy.
In the end, the world No 8 carded a final-round 69 to finish on 5-under par and in a tied for 12th. Thomas Pieters was the victor, on 10-under.
“Honestly just happy enough I got to play an extra two days,” McIlroy said. “I had to make a birdie at the last on Friday night to be here and almost made most of the weekend. Played well yesterday. Played really well today through 13 and then a couple of loose shots coming in that cost me.
“But it was good to see where the game's at. Obviously wasn't the finish I wanted today, but big picture-wise good to get another couple of days to play 36 holes, get a card in the hand and assess where everything is and know what to work on going into next week.”
McIlroy, 32, was playing his first event of the year with a fresh set of clubs. While not blaming the equipment, the Northern Irishman reckoned the unfamiliarity with his new 3-iron cost him three shots, and that his 3-wood had “a bit of left in it, and showed its head on 14 today and on 18”.
“They weren't two great swings, as well, so need to work a little bit on that,” McIlroy said. “But apart from that, I thought for the most part I struck the ball well. Coming into the new season, you have new equipment and there's always a couple little kinks to work out here and there. I thought the driver was good, irons were pretty good for the most part.”
This coming week’s Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic should provide a clearer picture as to where his game is at. At least that’s the theory, given the golfers were buffeted by gales all Friday at Yas Links.
“Hopefully get to Dubai with some favorable conditions next week,” said McIlroy, a two-time winner of the event. “Don't feel like I've hit a full iron shot the last couple of days - all knock-down. Maybe some kinder weather would be nice going into next week.”