Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship: Ewen Murray reflects on the final round
Ewen Murray reflects on what might have been for Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson in Abu Dhabi.
Last Updated: 20/01/14 9:13am
All eyes were on Rory McIlroy after his two shot penalty for an incorrect drop during round three. How would Rory react? Other questions were, could Mickelson follow one good round with another? Or would Craig Lee defeat a stellar field and secure his maiden victory?
The final group teed off at 10am local time and it wasn't long before we had some changes. The overnight leader struggled over the opening few holes and after bogeys at 4 and 5, Lee had lost the lead. It was to be a tough day at the office for the 36-year-old Scot.
First out of the blocks was the highly talented Dutchman, Joast Luiten. He birdied, 1,2,3, and 4 and five pars had him out in 32. The irrepressible Miguel Angel Jimenez birdied three of the first six to move alongside him and they trailed Phil Mickelson and Raphael Cabrera Bello by one. With the leaders completing the first third of the round, 13 players were separated by just three shots.
At this point, Mickelson was looking the most comfortable hitting every fairway and finding the first six greens in regulation. Quite a contrast to the opening two rounds when he hit less than 50% of the fairways from the tee.
Rory birdied the second to get his own back on the par five that cost him a two shot penalty in round three. A wayward drive cost him a dropped shot at five, but he got that back with a sumptuous two at the seventh which took him to just one off the lead.
Like Craig Lee, looking for his maiden victory, South African, George Coetzee skipped to the turn in 33 to get within two and at this point you couldn't take your eyes off the leaderboard as it was ever changing.
Craig was failing to find any rhythm, but was doing what top professionals do fashioning fine pars despite being out of position at both the sixth and the seventh.
The next change came at the ninth when Cabrera-Bello dropped a shot. For the first time, Mickelson had the lead on his own. It lasted all of a minute. Rory followed his 2 at the seventh with a birdie at eight and the two highest ranking players shared the lead. A sponsors dream and the sizeable galleries had what they came to see. Larrazabal would birdie eight to join them.
I've had the pleasure of watching some marvellous tournaments over the last twenty five years, but I couldn't remember so many changes happening so frequently. It was tournament golf at its best. Five minutes later, Mickelson took care of the par 5 eighth and once again he was looking down on the rest.
There are many sporting cliches used all too often, but the one,"it all happens on the back nine on Sunday" was never more apt as we headed for home.
One by one the challengers fell. Coetzee posted 12 under and Cabrera Bello matched it, which left Larrazabal, Rory and Phil to go head to head.
The telling moment came at the par four 13th. Mickelson had hit the first 12 greens in regulation only to hit his worst drive into a bush. Up ahead Pablo hit his 9 iron second to 12 inches. Phil, as one would expect went for broke. With the toe of the club turned the other way round, a right-handed effort saw the ball pop and hit the club again on the through swing. It ended in an ugly
seven. A four shot swing.
McIlroy was back in it, but could not force the necessary birdies over the closing stretch. Two sensational shots found the 18th and two putts later, Pablo had done enough. Three birdies in the last five left Mickelson one shot shy.
Rory of course will reflect on the two penalty shots for an incorrect drop in round 3. In the end, that was to prove costly, but he is back to somewhere very close to his best. He will never make that mistake again.
The first event of three that make up the Desert Swing was once again a great success. If I was a player, outside of the Majors, these events would be the first to be penned in the diary. The Abu Dhabi golf course was a true test of every department of of the game and it comes as no surprise the pure ball strikers were up there at the death.
It was a thrilling week from start to finish. The new champion heads towards the world's top 50 and can look forward to the rewards that brings. Pablo beat the cream of the crop in Abu Dhabi and that, along with his third victory on the European Tour will give his confidence an enormous boost.