Willett and Howell end droughts as McIlroy reflects on nearly year
Danny Willett. Picture: Getty Images

Danny Willett. Picture: Getty Images

Rory McIlroy's parting shot put his "nearly" season in context as Danny Willett ended a 952-day drought at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

As the Holywood star joked about needing "a brain transplant" following a frustrating season, an emotional Willett returned to the winner's circle for the first time since he won the 2016 Masters.

The Sheffield golfer (31) put more than two years of poor form and injury behind him by making three birdies in his last five holes to hold off Matt Wallace and current Masters champion Patrick Reed.

As Willett's closing 68 gave him a two-stroke win on 18-under par, McIlroy reflected on a year of missed opportunities, such as the chances he had to win the Masters or The Open.

"The margins are so slim and this year I’ve just been on the wrong side of it but there’s been a lot of good in there," McIlroy told Golfbytourmiss.com after closing with an untidy 73 to finish tied 20th on eight-under par, ten behind Willett.

"Another year it could have been a different story and all of a sudden you have four or five wins and you are feeling really good about yourself."

While he had one win, three runner-up finishes and another six top-10s in 25 starts worldwide, McIlroy could not help but think about the ones that got away as he headed into a near six-week winter break with issues to resolve — his putting, his wedge play, his equipment and, as a consequence, his driving.

"I have just got to keep doing what I have been doing and working on the right things," he said. "I have a few technical things to work on over the off-season and hopefully come back and start the season off on a positive note."

Jokingly, he added: "After this season, what I need is a brain transplant."

With his commitment European Tour membership still up in the air, McIlroy will be best man at caddie Harry Diamond's wedding, attend Ollie Fisher's nuptials and spend Christmas with his in-laws in upstate New York before returning for the PGA Tour's Sentry Tournament of Champions on January 3.

Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne, meanwhile, will team up for this week's ISPS Handa World Cup of Golf in Melbourne after concluding mixed seasons with fittingly mixed weeks in Dubai.

Struggling on the greens, the Offaly man followed a third round 69 with a 73 to tie for 30th on four-under, picking up €62,136 as he finished 44th in the Race to Dubai with official prize money this season of €897,222 from just 13 European Tour starts.

Dunne, who won €44,559 as tied for 41st on two-under after a closing 70, ending the year ranked 54th in the Race to Dubai with official earnings of €798,981 plus an extra €100,000 for winning the unofficial GolfSixes with Gavin Moynihan in May.

By finishing outside the top 30 in the final Race to Dubai standings, Dunne and Lowry are not not exempt for The Open at Royal Portrush and will have to earn their spots via one of the 16 Open Qualifying Series events or by making the top 50 in the world.

As for Willett (31), who was tied for the lead with Reed starting the final round, he completed his return to the winner's circle with a gutsy performance down the stretch.

“It's been a lot of hard work,” said an emotional Willett, who built a three-shot lead through the turn, bogeyed the 10th and 12th to give the pack hope but then finished with three birdies in his last five holes to win by two from the Wallace (68) and Reed (70).

“It's been tough. I'm just massively proud of myself and everyone that's been around me. You never quite know when a win is around the corner and with all the things that have happened, I was never quite sure if it was going to happen again."

Open champion Francesco Molinari was crowned European number one, finishing more than 1.32 million Race to Dubai points ahead of Reed with Tommy Fleetwood third, after finishing 26th on six-under in Dubai.

Meanwhile, Charles Howell III (39) won for the first time in more than 11 years when he beat Patrick Rodgers (26) with a birdie at the second playoff hole in the RSM Classic at Sea Island in Georgia.

Without a win since he claimed his second PGA victory in the 2007 Nissan Open at Riviera, Howell recovered from a bogey-double bogey start and birdied the 15th, 16th and 17th to draw level on 19 under with Rodgers, who shot a PGA Tour record 132 for the last 36 holes, following a third round 61 with an eight-under 62.

Howell missed a 22 footer for victory at the last but after failing from 15 feet at the first extra hole, he made a 15 footer on his third trip down the 18th to win the $1.15 million top prize and take his career earnings beyond $37 million.

Graeme McDowell (39) closed with a four-under 66 to finish tied 11th, five strokes outside a playoff on 14-under to earn $140,800 in the final official event of 2018 after Pádraig Harrington and Seamus Power missed the two-under par cut by one stroke.

Meanwhile, disabled Dundalk amateur Brendan Lawlor (21) finished second in the Australian All Abilities Championship at The Lakes in Sydney where Mexico's Abraham Ancer won the Emirates Australian Open by five shots from Australia's Dimitrios Papadatos.

The Emirates Australian Open was the first event in The Open Qualifying Series which gives golfers around the world opportunities to book their place at Royal Portrush from 14-21 July 2019.

Ancer and Papadatos will be joined at Portrush by third-placed Jake McLeod.