The combination of a fortuitious ankle injury, a dose of food poisoning and some very erratic putting have put Rory McIlroy's hopes of a third Race to Dubai title in four years in some doubt.
Despite closing with a 66 in Shanghai to finish tied for 11th behind surprise winner Russell Knox of Scotland, McIlroy saw Danny Willett pile the pressure on with a stunning final round of 62 in the WGC-HSBC Champions that cut his lead from 400,000 to a negligible 74,214 Race to Dubai points
Willett surged through the field at Sheshan International Golf Club with ten unanswered birdies – including four in a row from the first – to finish in a tie for third place and secure his best result in a World Golf Championship stroke play event.
With McIlroy's delicate physical condition making it impossible for him to play the BMW Masters and therefore fulfil the minimum event requirement to keep his European Tour membership and contest the Race to Dubai finale in a fortnight, he's fortunate that CEO Keith Pelley has given him a special dispensation that keeps the Race to Dubai excitement alive.
It was the only commercial decision Pelley could take, though it makes a mockery of the tour's rules.
Willett is not complaining about the executive decision as he now moves on to play in next week’s BMW Masters needing only a top 25 finish at Lake Malaren Golf Club to overtake Irishman McIlroy at the top of the Race to Dubai rankings.
Willett said: “This could be a very big result for me. With Rory not playing next week, I could gain a few more points on him and give us a nice buzz going into the final week into Dubai.
“I’ve been determined all year, ever since I got to number one straight off the bat at the Nedbank. I though, it would be good to stay up there all year.
"After that big win, I kept pressing hard and I’ve been able to post some really good numbers around the world. Hopefully I can keep that going for two more weeks.”
McIlroy could do little more than say that he's looking forward to going for the win in Dubai in a fortnight and his third Race to Dubai title in four years.
He said: “I saw Danny got off to a great start and then he kept it going. It’s a great round of golf, and it keeps The Race to Dubai very exciting.
“He’s got a great chance to do something next week at the BMW [Masters]. He’s obviously playing very well, so he has a great chance to creep up on me or even overtake me.
“But I still rate my chances. I obviously know the [Earth] course very well and Dubai is a bit of a second home for me, plus I’m going for the double after winning there earlier in the season [in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic].
“So I’m looking forward to it. I always enjoy it there, and I’ve obviously done well there before. So I just need to go there and try and get the win, and hopefully that will be enough.”
Criticising McIlroy's putting feels a bit like saying Miss World went a bit heavy on the mascara, but it is no coincidence that his best round of the week came on the same day he had just 28 putts.
The County Down man ended up 30th in the field for putts per green in regulation according to the European Tour (the PGA Tour ranked him 33rd), as well as 62 for putts per round.
"I played well today," McIlroy said. "I feel like I played very similarly to the way I played the last three days. I held a couple more putts and I was very solid from tee-to-green... I felt like I could have been even lower but reflects how I played, not just today but over the course of the week.
"This week has just been about the putts that haven't went in and that's sort of what my last few weeks have felt like, as well.
"I felt like I played good enough to be in contention and win. I just haven't held enough putts. But it was nice to finish this way and try and get ready for Dubai in a couple weeks.
"I feel like I played well enough to win this week. I just didn't hole enough putts and that's sort of been the story of my season, well, at least, for the last couple of months anyway.
"But it's getting better. I feel like every tournament I play, I'm getting a little bit better and hopefully I can continue in that trend and go into Dubai and play well again."
Shane Lowry closed with a one under 71 and remained third in the Race to Dubai despite picking up just € 38,272 for his share fo 68th in the 78 man field.
His final round had more colour than a Van Gogh, — seven birdies, one bogey, one double bogey and a triple bogey eight at the 14th, his fifth.
Given his birdie count, the Clara man finally found something with the putter in the last round, taking just 28 putts having averaged more than 35 for the first three rounds.
Perhaps it was completely giving up the ghost after finishing himself 21 shots off the lead on Saturday night that finally did it.
So just the 21 behind going into tomorrow..... Stranger things have happened.— Shane Lowry (@ShaneLowryGolf) November 7, 2015
Either way, Lowry still has three more great chances to win again this season — Lake Malaren, Dubai and the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
As for 30-year old Knox, his first tour victory was a fairytale story as he got into the field at the last minute and became the first player to ever win a World Golf Championships on their debut.
Knox held off spirited challenges from a host of rivals on the final day to become the first Scotsman to win a World Golf Championship event and earn his maiden European Tour victory.
Knox had to return to Sheshan International Golf Course at 7.45am on Sunday morning to complete the final hole of his third round, which he duly birdied, before beginning his final round with two gains in three holes to establish a lead which he would not relinquish.
A closing round of 68 for a 20 under par aggregate total secured victory by two shots from American Kevin Kisner, and earned the Inverness native €1,264,450 plus a position in the top 30 of the Official World Golf Ranking.
Victory completed a remarkable ten days for Knox, who only discovered he was in the tournament after JB Holmes withdrew last Thursday.
Kisner birdied the last hole to sign for a round of 70 and an 18 under par total, while third place was shared between the English duo of Ross Fisher (68) and Willett, who rampaged through the field with a superb round of 62.
McIlroy ended a frustrating week on a high note, holing a long birdie putt on the final green to card a round of 66 and take a share of 11th place on 14 under par.
Home hero Li Hao-tong treated his legion of fans to thrills and spills a plenty, closing with a round of 72 which included five birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey seven at the second hole.
Li’s tied seventh finish alongside Jordan Spieth, who returned to the World Number One spot, was the best performance by a Chinese player in a WGC event.
Russell Knox, 68 (-20)
“It’s incredible. I always hoped it (a win) was going to happen but you're just never sure. There’s just so many unbelievable players on tours all around the world and to win on this stage is a dream come true. I still can’t quite believe it.
“Deep down in my bones I felt I was capable of winning. I thought it was going to be maybe another year, but I’m glad it happened now.”
Danny Willett, 62 (-17)
“It’s very special. It’s special shooting 62 at home with the lads, but in a World Golf Championship on a Sunday when it means something a bit more, obviously it’s that little bit more special.
“It could be big for me in the Race to Dubai, especially with Rory not playing next week, we could climb a few more points on him and give us a nice buzz going into the next week into Dubai.”
Ross Fisher, 68 (-17)
“I’m obviously delighted. It was a shame to come up a little bit shy, but I gave it a good go. I felt like I played some really good golf. I gave myself a lot of looks at birdie. And then made a few good par putts on the front nine to keep me in it.
“I lost in a play-off here a few years ago, which was one I probably let slip a little bit. I learned from those experiences. And it’s just nice to be in the mix in such a big tournament. I’ve missed the buzz, the adrenaline, and that’s what we live to play this game for. We want to be in the mix.”
Li Hao-tong, 72 (-15)
“The first five holes gave me a hard time, but I was lucky to make a lot of birdies on the back nine and get up-and-down a lot. I think today is my most up-and-down round of the year. It is incredible for me this week. This for me is very, very big.”
Rory McIlroy, 66 (-14)
“I feel like I played well enough to win this week. I just didn't hole enough putts and that's sort of been the story of my season, well, at least, for the last couple of months anyway. But it's getting better. I feel like every tournament I play, I'm getting a little bit better and hopefully I can continue in that trend and go into Dubai and play well again.”
Final round scores
268 R Knox (Sco) 67 65 68 68,
270 K Kisner (USA) 64 66 70 70,
271 R Fisher (Eng) 69 69 65 68, D Willett (Eng) 65 74 70 62,
272 D Johnson (USA) 65 71 65 71, B Grace (RSA) 63 71 70 68,
273 M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 68 69 69 67, J Spieth (USA) 68 72 63 70, P Reed (USA) 65 70 68 70, L Haotong (Chn) 66 69 66 72,
274 M Leishman (Aus) 69 72 65 68, H Stenson (Swe) 69 72 66 67, D Berger (USA) 68 71 69 66, T Jaidee (Tha) 72 68 66 68, Rory McIlroy (Nir) 68 72 68 66, S Garcia (Esp) 68 70 68 68,
275 R Fowler (USA) 68 72 68 67, B Wiesberger (Aut) 70 66 69 70,
277 T Olesen (Den) 64 74 66 73, S Hend (Aus) 68 69 67 73, B An (Kor) 69 68 68 72, H Mahan (USA) 68 68 71 70,
278 P Casey (Eng) 67 72 71 68, G Woodland (USA) 69 71 73 65, H English (USA) 67 71 70 70, T Pieters (Bel) 67 71 71 69,
279 K Kim (Kor) 74 71 68 66, J Thomas (USA) 72 69 70 68, J Morrison (Eng) 69 70 68 72,
280 K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 69 70 70 71, T Fleetwood (Eng) 67 71 72 70, I Poulter (Eng) 72 71 70 67, M Kaymer (Ger) 69 71 73 67, D Howell (Eng) 73 68 69 70,
281 S Piercy (USA) 70 73 66 72, C Schwartzel (RSA) 68 72 69 72, E Grillo (Arg) 69 71 69 72, R Streb (USA) 73 69 68 71, B Watson (USA) 68 73 68 72,
282 S Bowditch (Aus) 64 75 68 75, L Donald (Eng) 71 69 70 72, A Lahiri (Ind) 70 75 66 71, M Jones (Aus) 74 70 68 70,
283 L Oosthuizen (RSA) 68 69 73 73, D Summerhays (USA) 68 74 67 74,
284 Z Xinjun (Chn) 67 72 73 72, S Chawrasia (Ind) 69 72 71 72, M Jiménez (Esp) 73 72 70 69, S Kjeldsen (Den) 68 71 70 75, R Lee (Can) 68 72 73 71,
285 D Zecheng (Chn) 70 71 73 71, C Wood (Eng) 68 76 69 72, L Westwood (Eng) 72 69 71 73,
286 T Aiken (RSA) 70 71 73 72, A Noren (Swe) 70 76 66 74, T Hatton (Eng) 70 76 70 70,
287 K Na (USA) 72 72 72 71,
288 L Wenchong (Chn) 71 73 73 71, G Chalmers (Aus) 73 73 69 73, D Lee (Nzl) 71 73 71 73, W Ashun (Chn) 69 74 72 73, N Cullen (Aus) 74 71 70 73, T Fisher Jnr (RSA) 67 74 70 77,
289 H Iwata (Jpn) 70 77 69 73, A Sullivan (Eng) 70 74 70 75, C Smith (Aus) 71 73 70 75,
290 D Chia (Mas) 72 73 74 71,
292 A Dodt (Aus) 70 80 76 66, Shane Lowry (Irl) 74 75 72 71,
293 A Scott (Aus) 75 76 72 70,
294 S Kodaira (Jpn) 74 76 76 68,
295 D Van Tonder (RSA) 77 73 71 74, D Lingmerth (Swe) 70 72 76 77,
297 C Yi (Chn) 70 78 71 78,
301 S Jeffress (Aus) 76 78 73 74,
303 C Kirk (USA) 71 79 74 79, M Warren (Sco) 75 74 81 73,
** H Matsuyama (Jpn) 71 73 RT 0