Li Haotong said he had “played some of the best shots of my life so far” on his way to becoming the first Asian winner of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
The 22-year-old from China held off the challenge of Rory McIlroy, the two-time Classic champion, in a compelling final round at Emirates Golf Club on Sunday.
His 23-under-par was a new record for the lowest total at the oldest tournament on the European Tour’s Desert Swing.
“For the first few holes, I was quite nervous, especially at the first, where I made bogey,” Li said.
“But I came back really fast, which was good, especially in the last four holes, when I think I played some of the best shots of my life so far. I am happy to be able to hold the trophy here.”
Li had started the final round with a one-shot lead over McIlroy, his playing partner in the final match out.
Somehow, that ended up as the winning margin, even though McIlroy appeared to have the tournament in his grasp when he arrived at the 11th with a two-stroke lead.
The Northern Irishman knows what it takes to win in this city. He has won the Classic twice, and the DP World Tour Championship the same number of times, a haul of trophies that accounts for nearly a third of all his European Tour titles.
And yet, surely to universal surprise, he faltered. While he bogeyed the 11th and 16th, Li put together a run that saw him play the final six holes in 4-under par.
“It's incredible to play with him,” Li said of his celebrated Sunday afternoon playing partner. “I have learned a lot from the experience.”
McIlroy added a runner-up finish to the tied-third he had in Abu Dhabi last weekend. It marks a fine return to competitive golf following a lengthy spell out through injury, but he could do little to hide his disappointment at losing out.
“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,” McIlroy said.
“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.”
Tyrrell Hatton finished third for the second time in succession at the Classic, having been eighth the year before that. He has had a productive winter in the UAE, having been tied-15 in the capital last week, and tied-eighth at the DP World Tour Championship in November.
“[I played] pretty solid week last week, and then to come here, which is one of my favourite events of the year, it’s been a good three weeks to start the year,” Hatton said.