McIlroy bows to "obscene" Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi
Tommy Fleetwood holes out on the 18th to successfully defend the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Picture: Getty Images

Tommy Fleetwood holes out on the 18th to successfully defend the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Picture: Getty Images

Rory McIlroy hailed Tommy Fleetwood's blistering nine as "obscene" after the European No 1 impressively scuppered his hopes a winning return to action in Abu Dhabi.

The reigning Race to Dubai champion came home in 30 blows in challenging conditions, carding a joint-best-of-the-day 65 to retain the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a two-stroke win over Ross Fisher on 22-under par.

McIlroy had not played for three months, but while he failed to get the victory playing a "scrappy", level par back nine to shoot 70 and finish four behind Fleetwood in a tie for third with Matt Fitzpatrick, he described his week as "a huge success for me."

"I felt like that was really good in the conditions," McIlroy said. "Had I shot two-under on the back nine, I thought that would have been good enough to at least get into a playoff.

"Obviously Tommy had different ideas. No, he played fantastically well. I have no complaints about how I played this week. I felt like I did everything I needed to. Just the better man won today."

Considering McIlroy closed with rounds of 64 and 63 to finish second to Paul Dunne (a disappointing tied 19th after a closing 74 in Abu Dhabi) on 17-under in his penultimate start of 2017, it would be an exaggeration to say that McIlroy was coming back from the dead this week.

But Fleetwood was impressed by the Co Down man's game after three months away from competitive play.

"He looked great; swung it great," Fleetwood said. "He hit it really nicely. Had control of his ball. 

"I think as golfers, whenever you've had a long period off, there's always, you know, you always sort of plan for a bit of rust. Not necessarily how you hit it, but just how you go about playing golf.

Rory McIlroy. Picture: Getty Images

Rory McIlroy. Picture: Getty Images

"Playing golf is a whole different skill in itself. I thought he looked great. I think he'll win more than once this year, easily. I think he looks really well. Yeah, it was good playing with him."

Fleetwood was merely repaying the compliment.

Upon witnessing Fleetwood hole out for victory, McIlroy said of his back-nine exhibition: "That was obscene."

Fisher had led for much of the final round after an eagle on the second hole followed by two birdies on the front nine.

But after a long putt for bogey on the 10th, he was reeled in by Fleetwood, who made a mockery of the difficult conditions coming down the stretch, carding six birdies over the closing nine holes, including a superb up and down from the greenside rough on the last. 

Runner-up Ross Fisher. Credit: Getty Images

Runner-up Ross Fisher. Credit: Getty Images

Fleetwood’s winning total of 22 under par 266 was just two shots shy of the tournament’s record low score of 24 under par 264 set by Martin Kaymer in 2011, and Fleetwood follows the German as the only other player to retain the title at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

It was his fourth European Tour title - and first as a father – capping a fine week for the Southport player who celebrated his 27th birthday on Friday.

Fisher had to settle for his third runner-up finish in six European Tour appearances after a final round of 69, while McIlroy recorded his eighth top-five finish in ten appearances, finishing tied third with Ryder Cup teammate Matthew Fitzpatrick with world No 1 Dustin Johnson (70) tied ninth on 14-under.

“I'm really happy with how I played," McIlroy said. "It could have been a little bit better today. I was a little bit scrappy but in the conditions sort I felt like shooting anything in the 60s would have been a good score.

"I didn't quite do that; I shot 70. Overall, I'm really happy how I played this week. My game is in really good shape, and I saw some really, really positive signs. So I'm looking forward to next week in Dubai and obviously looking forward to the rest of the season.

"Tommy shooting six under on that back nine is seriously impressive. I think the field that was assembled here this week is very, very strong, having the world number one here and a lot of strong players. 

Tommy Fleetwood celebrates with the winner's trophy after the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, United Arab Emirates.  Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Tommy Fleetwood celebrates with the winner's trophy after the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, United Arab Emirates.  Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

"For Tommy to defend and in such style against such a great field, it bodes well not just for him for European golf. I said earlier; he will be a great addition to the Ryder Cup team come late September."

McIlroy is looking forward to next week's Omega Dubai Desert Classic this week after admitting he exceeded his expectations in Abu Dhabi.

"Where I've come from the last three months just in terms of my health and my golf and everything, I'm in a much better place now than when I sort of left the game for a little bit in October," he said.

"I'm really happy with that, and just looking forward to getting back at it again next week and trying to put myself in contention again and try to get my name on that trophy one more time in Dubai."

Adding that he was pleased with his attitude, his patience and his comfort level, he said: "I know it's only three months, but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf and scenarios and this and that. 

"But I felt like I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was probably the most pleasing thing."

The rib injury that irked him last season appears to be a thing of the past now too, though he knows he can't take anything for granted.

"I used to have to look after my lower back in the early days, and now that's fine," he said. "I'm just going to have to look after this for a while, but it's totally fine. I'm 100 percent, and yeah, as I say, I can't wait to get at it again next week.

"It felt great to get another tournament under my belt. It's a great start to the year. I have no complaints. My body held up really well. My game was probably better than I expected it to be. So I'm really happy with the week."

He described Fleetwood as "the guy to beat in Europe right now", and Fisher did not disagree after his third second-place finish in his last six starts.

"I knew we were going to face a very tough and tricky day," Fisher said. "The wind was blowing. The greens were getting firmer and faster. 

“Hats off to Tommy. I don't feel like I've lost a tournament. Tommy's gone out there and shot 65, and he's won it, so all credit to Tommy.”

As for Dunne, he never got going, and went out in three over by following a bogey at the first with a double bogey six at the ninth before making his lone birdie of the day at the 18th.

Complete final round scores

Detailed scores

266 T Fleetwood (Eng) 66 68 67 65,

 268 R Fisher (Eng) 67 67 65 69,

 270 Rory McIlroy (Nir) 69 66 65 70, M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 68 70 63 69,

 271 T Pieters (Bel) 67 65 67 72, C Paisley (Eng) 69 67 66 69,

 272 A Levy (Fra) 69 65 70 68,

 273 H Stenson (Swe) 70 68 70 65,

 274 F Zanotti (Par) 67 69 68 70, D Johnson (USA) 72 64 68 70, T Detry (Bel) 70 68 64 72, P Casey (Eng) 70 65 69 70, A Johnston (Eng) 68 68 66 72,

 275 J Campillo (Esp) 69 64 72 70,

 276 T Hatton (Eng) 69 70 69 68, B Wiesberger (Aut) 67 68 69 72, B Grace (RSA) 72 64 67 73, J Wang (Kor) 71 67 67 71,

 277 R Sterne (RSA) 68 72 67 70, Paul Dunne (Irl) 68 70 65 74, D Frittelli (RSA) 69 67 67 74,

 278 J Rose (Eng) 71 71 67 69, W Ashun (Chn) 71 67 72 68, S Hend (Aus) 71 69 69 69, M Korhonen (Fin) 73 68 68 69, K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 70 70 68 70,

 279 M Kaymer (Ger) 69 68 71 71, S Han (USA) 73 67 69 70, L Jensen (Den) 70 71 70 68,

 280 M Manassero (Ita) 70 71 70 69, T Bjørn (Den) 73 69 69 69,

 281 S Brazel (Aus) 67 68 70 76, N Colsaerts (Bel) 69 70 71 71, M Wallace (Eng) 71 68 72 70, M Kuchar (USA) 72 70 69 70, B Hebert (Fra) 72 68 69 72, R Karlsson (Swe) 71 70 70 70, K Broberg (Swe) 69 69 70 73, R Fox (Nzl) 70 66 72 73,

 282 D Fichardt (RSA) 73 67 71 71, R Ramsay (Sco) 68 70 72 72, A Otaegui (Esp) 70 69 73 70, D Burmester (RSA) 69 72 67 74, M Ilonen (Fin) 68 74 67 73, R Cabrera Bello (Esp) 72 70 73 67, B An (Kor) 71 70 70 71, M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra) 71 71 69 71,

 283 J Luiten (Ned) 69 68 72 74, S Kjeldsen (Den) 72 70 72 69, S Sharma (Ind) 71 70 70 72, J Scrivener (Aus) 69 68 71 75, A Cañizares (Esp) 71 71 71 70,

 284 A Sullivan (Eng) 70 65 73 76, T Olesen (Den) 69 73 71 71, J Lagergren (Swe) 69 73 69 73, N Bertasio (Ita) 70 71 69 74, G Stal (Fra) 72 69 74 69, R Gouveia (Por) 72 70 69 73, C Pigem (Esp) 68 71 72 73, H Porteous (RSA) 72 70 71 71,

 285 J Smith (Eng) 72 70 69 74, L Slattery (Eng) 69 72 69 75, S Gallacher (Sco) 68 72 69 76, B Stone (RSA) 69 70 70 76, A Quiros (Esp) 70 72 71 72, G Bourdy (Fra) 71 70 72 72,

 286 G Havret (Fra) 70 71 70 75,

 288 H Tanihara (Jpn) 66 72 74 76,

 289 L Bjerregaard (Den) 72 69 73 75, J Kruyswijk (RSA) 75 67 71 76,

 292 S Vincent (Zim) 69 70 73 80