Most golfers would be pleased to finish third and second in their first two starts after a three-month break.
Not Rory McIlroy. And especially not after his second successive Sunday afternoon letdown.
The Co Down man confessed he was “pissed off” to lose a two-shot lead over China’s Li Haotong with just eight holes to go in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, finishing a shot behind as the 22-year from Shanghai birdied four of the last six holes to win by a stroke on 23-under par.
It speaks volumes for McIlroy’s ability that Li had to shoot the lowest four-round aggregate in the history of the event and hole crucial birdie putts at the 15th, 17th and 18th to become the first Chinese player to break into the world’s top 50.
But if you think McIlroy was pleased to shoot 40 under par for his first two events in 2018, averaging 67 per round, think again.
“Being in the positions I've been in and having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it's a little difficult,” McIlroy said after matching Li’s closing 69.
“The competitor in me is very disappointed right now. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn't do enough when I needed to.”
While he surpassed his expectations by making two eagles and 44 birdies during the Desert Swing, moving back to eighth in the world rankings, McIlroy’s competitive spirit would not allow him to immediately shrug off yesterday’s back nine, rusty or not.
After the cut fell at a record low of five under par, leaving Graeme McDowell and Paul Dunne twiddling their thumbs for the weekend on four-under, McIlroy shot 68 on Saturday to be just one behind Li going into the final round.
When the tall Chinese golfer made a nervy bogey at the first, allowing McIlroy to draw level, few would have bet against the Irish star.
Even after they matched birdies at the par-five third and par-three eighth, McIlroy appeared destined to win the famed Dallah (the tournament’s Arabic coffee pot trophy) for the third time when his approach to the ninth kicked down towards the lake and stopped inches short.
After chipping dead to save par, McIlroy suddenly found himself two shots ahead when Li drove into a bush at par-five 10th, took a penalty drop and made a bogey six to his easy four.
But tougher Sunday conditions, coupled with tighter pin positions and Li’s relentless pursuit of his second European Tour victory, put just enough pressure on McIlroy to make the difference.
His first error was to bogey the 11th — short-siding himself by pulling a nine-iron into a bunker.
But even though Li was two behind again after a bogey at the 12th, McIlroy threw him another bone by tentatively three-putting the par-five 13th from 40 feet.
“Yeah, pissed off. I mean, birdieing 10, going two ahead there with Li making bogey, thought I was obviously in the driver's seat and just a bogey out of nowhere on 11, just a bad 9-iron there,” McIlroy said.
“And then the three-putt on 13, those were the two key holes of the tournament, really, even though there was a bad tee shot on 16.”
Li drew level at the 15th, rattling in key 25 footer from the fringe before finding himself one ahead with two to go when McIlroy, fatally, blasted a drive into the desert right of the 16th, then stymied himself behind palms on the left after an over-ambitious recovery shot went awry.
It was another big course management error and while he almost chipped in for an eagle two from right of the 17th, Li closed out a memorable win with two clutch birdie putts.
After matching McIlroy’ tap-in birdie at the 17th by rapping in an eight-footer, he got up and down for birdie from 99 yards at the 18th, slotting home a 12 footer after McIlroy’s 20 yard try for eagle slipped six feet past.
Whether it was complacency, nerves or simply a combination of rust and a lack of competitive tension, McIlroy was left wondering how he let victory slip from his grasp.
“From being two ahead standing on the 11th tee to being level going into 16, I just don't know…,” he said.
“It was a couple of bad shots, a couple of poor decisions, a couple of mental errors, a few tentative putts out there, as well.
“I kept leaving myself in places where I couldn't really give it a run at the hole because they were downhill, downgrain, downwind. So I didn't really leave it in the best spots to be aggressive with my putts.
“But tried until the very end. Made two good birdies. Made him win it in the end, which was, you know, all I could do.
"He played very well on the way in, birdieing three of the last four. I just wish I could get a couple of those holes back.”
To his credit, he made no excuses and looks now to next week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
“Conditions were tougher than they had been the last three days. I think the scores reflected that,” he said. “But you know, again, the conditions weren’t a factor in the bad nine-iron and the three-putt on 13.”
Trying hard to look on the bright side after finishing tied third in Abu Dhabi and second in Dubai, he added: “If someone had of told me at the start of the year you'd finish third and second your first two events, I'd say, yeah, I'd take that.”
But he also knows that shooting 36 on the back nine on Sunday two weeks running is not going to win many events in the ultra-competitive modern game.
As for Li, he was simply thrilled to see off McIlroy and become the first Chinese golfer to break into the top 50 in the world, six months after finishing third in The Open thanks to a closing 63.
He was disappointed to "waste" two shots at the 10th but he made all 14 of his putts inside 10 feet on Sunday, and a few more from outside that distance.
He added: "Well, for some reason, since Rory make that bogey after [my double on 10] I've just been so relaxed, just want to have fun because already two shots back behind. But I know still in that position. And lucky, I make birdie on 13, and he make par.
"And next hole was a pretty bad lie, saved par there. And was into 15th green, for some reason, I just think it felt so good down there. Felt so comfortable. And also got lucky, make that putt. I think it's mostly important put out there."
Asked what the reaction will be like in China, he beamed: "It's going to be big."