Fleetwood holds off McIlroy to retain crown

English golfer Tommy Fleetwood tees off at the 14th hole during the final round of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Jan 21, 2018.
English golfer Tommy Fleetwood tees off at the 14th hole during the final round of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Jan 21, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ABU DHABI • Nobody can accuse Tommy Fleetwood of doing things the easy way.

A year ago, the Englishman held off the challenge of Dustin Johnson to prevail in the Abu Dhabi Championship. Yesterday it was Rory McIlroy who could not keep pace as Fleetwood retained the title with a seven-under 65 in the final round.

Attention will fall on McIlroy not achieving the victory which looked highly likely for so long but Fleetwood's brilliance when it mattered most shouldn't be underestimated.

Last year's Race to Dubai champion secured a third tournament victory since the start of last year with an inward half of 30. His 22-under 266 total was two strokes better than compatriot and runner-up Ross Fisher's 69. McIlroy's 70 meant a share of third with Matt Fitzpatrick (69) at 18 under.

The back-nine heroics of Fleetwood, ranked 18th in the world and expected to rise to No. 10 when the new list is released today, included making a 25-feet putt for birdie on the par-three 15th hole to tie for the lead with Fisher, and then a 50-foot birdie putt to take the outright lead on the par-four 16th hole.

"I just really wanted to win this one. It's a weird feeling coming to defend a trophy because it's yours and you don't want to give it away. Keeping hold of it for another year is very nice,"said Fleetwood.

McIlroy's dream scenario of victory on his return to competitive action, following an injury absence, was not to transpire. Still, there was sufficient evidence over four days to suggest the Northern Irishman will end that barren run - which stretches back to September 2016 - before the Masters.

On Abu Dhabi greens which have always proved a challenge to him, McIlroy, who mixed four birdies with two bogeys yesterday, was simply unable to convert enough chances. But he was among the first to congratulate the 27-year-old Fleetwood.

"It's incredible," said McIlroy of Fleetwood's surge. "To put that round of golf together out there today - 65 in those conditions is seriously impressive and six under on the back nine when he needed to.

"I'm really happy with how I played this week. My game is in really good shape and I saw some really, really positive signs."

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2018, with the headline 'Fleetwood holds off McIlroy to retain crown'. Print Edition | Subscribe