Rory McIlroy (Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy set up a thrilling conclusion to The Race to Dubai with victory at the UBS Hong Kong Open.
The European Tour season will reach a dramatic climax at the Dubai World Championship presented by DP World, where World Number One Luke Donald and World Number Two McIlroy will battle to become European Number One.
The 22 year old Northern Irishman put Donald’s dream of becoming the first player to top the money list on both sides of the Atlantic firmly on hold with a remarkable display at Fanling, chipping in from a greenside bunker at the last to finish 12 under par.
There were five birdies and no bogeys in the US Open Championship winner’s closing 65 as he held off a string of challengers.
McIlroy finished two clear of France’s Grégory Havret, who was also round in 65, and now heads to the Earth Course needing a second consecutive victory and Donald to finish outside the top nine.
“I’ve wanted to win this tournament so badly since that play-off in 2008,” said McIlroy, who has now finished second, second, sixth and first in the last four years at Fanling. “I’ve had to wait a couple of years to get there, but to get this trophy in my hands is very special.
“It meant a lot knowing that I had to go out there and play well to keep myself alive in The Race to Dubai, probably to keep second place in the World Rankings. To produce the sort of golf I did today was very pleasing.
“That was one of the goals going out today, was to win this tournament to keep myself in with a shout next week. That's very dependent on what Luke does because he's got such a big lead - if I can somehow get myself into contention next week, you never know.
“Another little bit of motivation was I woke up this morning and saw Lee Westwood shoot 62 in Sun City, and I thought I really needed to win to stay above him in the World Rankings, and there you go. It was nice to be able to do both.
“I’ll always come back to the tournaments that I love and Hong Kong is one of those tournaments. I absolutely love it here and it will be great to come back next year and defend this title.”
It was an incredible finish to a day that saw the lead change hands a number of times. And McIlroy was delighted with the battling nature of his display, having claimed both his previous European Tour titles after holding a big lead going into the final round.
“This week there have been glimpses of really, really good golf,” he continued. “On Friday and Saturday, I really did struggle.
“To be able to win golf tournaments when you're not playing your best is what the likes of Tiger [Woods] did week in, week out, whenever he was winning seven, eight, nine tournaments a year.
“That's something if you want to be a great player, you're going to have to be able to do that. I feel as if I'm learning to do that, and this is a great win.
“To come from behind, and to draw level after nine holes and then to play very solid golf on the back nine and be able to close it out, it's something I probably haven't done before.
“It was a different win - it would be nice to be walking up the last with a four shot lead every time, but that's just not going to happen. It was nice to finish it off like this.”
Having battled his way to a 70 on Saturday, a revitalised McIlroy quickly set about overhauling overnight leader Alvaro Quiros – who might have sensed it was not to be his day when his drive at the first leaked right and settled behind a tree.
A putt from 12 feet brought McIlroy the first birdie of the day at the second, but he was unable to capitalise on a number of subsequent chances over the front nine.
A nice approach at the sixth was followed by a birdie putt that just slid past the hole and he then missed another makeable one at the par three seventh.
A short birdie putt at the eighth also went begging but he finally took advantage at the ninth to move into a share of the lead on nine under par.
Another birdie at the 12th saw him move clear at the front and a two at the par three 15th gave him a one shot cushion over Havret heading down the last.
After driving into the left-hand rough, his second shot landed in the bunker just in front of the green. Havret, meanwhile, had found sand from the tee and was forced to lay-up.
His approach landed 20 feet from the flag but McIlroy rendered the Frenchman's putt academic after he incredibly holed his bunker shot for a birdie, a series of fist pumps showing his obvious delight.
“I just hit a perfect bunker shot, and once it landed on the green, it never looked anywhere else and I think you could see how much that meant to me,” added McIlroy, whose victory was the sixth by a Northern Irishman on The European Tour in 2011 – a new record.
“When the ball went in the hole, I think that's the most excited I've maybe ever been on a golf course. It was just incredible to see the ball drop and realise that I had finally won this tournament.
“No matter how prestigious tournaments are, you always have your favourites, and this is definitely one of my favourite tournaments. To be able to win it is fantastic and I couldn't be happier.”
An eagle at the 12th to go with three birdies and a bogey had thrust Havret into contention but he could only pick up one more shot - at the 17th - as he ended ten under.
Peter Hanson, meanwhile, ended the day as he started on nine under par. The Swede birdied the third to briefly take the lead on ten under but three-putted the fourth from ten feet to drop back before bogeying the eighth.
A birdie at the ninth saw him reach the turn nine under par and another at the 12th kept him in the hunt but he dropped a shot at the 14th and had to settle for third.
Defending champion Ian Poulter had picked up three birdies over the front nine, draining a mid-range putt at the ninth to climb to seven under, before gaining further shots at the 12th and 14th to move to nine under par.
But a bogey at the 15th halted his momentum and the Ryder Cup star eventually signed for a 66 to finish alongside Richie Ramsay and Pariya Junhasavasdikul in fourth on eight under par.
"Disappointing, I came to defend and I've come up shy," Poulter said of his performance.
"I thought I had a chance today. I got off to a very good start, birdies at two and three and a sack full of chances from there on in.
"I got it to nine under and I just flushed it on 15, pitched two yards short of the pin and it's gone through the back of the green. A costly bogey at the wrong time."
Ramsay's 66 contained an eagle, four birdies and two bogeys.
Playing in an earlier group, the Scot was still in contention at the 18th but his drive found the trees, he had to pitch out and ended up dropping a shot.
"Bogeying the first hole was a little disappointing but I played really solidly," he said.
"Looking back on the last three days, a couple more putts and I feel like I could have got to 12 or 13 under. A fraction unlucky at the last, the wind seemed to catch the tee shot and it never stopped.
"I played to win, which was the biggest thing. I'm not out here to make up the numbers, but another good week."
Quiros, meanwhile, struggled from the off.
The Spaniard bogeyed the first after chipping out sideways with his second and although he recovered the shot at the third, two more bogeys and a double at the seventh - where he overshot the green, came up short with his first chip then ran 15 feet past with his second - saw him reach the turn in 39.
Two more birdies and one dropped shot on the back nine meant he ended tied for seventh on seven under par following a 73.
In the battle for European Tour cards, Gareth Maybin (tied 39th) and Keith Horne (tied 42nd) did enough to move into the top 118 at the expense of Simon Khan and Mark Tullo.
Khan’s 2010 BMW PGA Championship win sees him exempt for 2012, but Chile’s Tullo faces a trip to Qualifying School despite earning €126,117 from his third place finish at the Barclays Scottish Open. He finished €1,277 behind Wales’ former Ryder Cup star Phillip Price, who clings onto his playing privileges.
Meanwhile there was no change to the top 60 who will appear in Dubai next week – Christian Nilsson hanging onto 60th place ahead of Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher by €3,931.