After ‘sloppy’ Rory McIlroy finish, Tommy Fleetwood steals a key win

Rory McIlroy in orange shirt wraps arm around Tommy Fleetwood in purple shirt at Dubai Invitational

Rory McIlroy's final round alongside European Ryder Cup partner Tommy Fleetwood resulted in a highly unusual loss.

Getty Images/Alex Burstow

The Dubai Invitational was, if nothing else, rare for Rory McIlroy.

Just perhaps not in the way he’d hoped.

On Sunday at Dubai Creek Resort, McIlroy delivered a first for his playing career — three-putting from inside of three feet and dumping his 72nd hole tee shot in the water — en route to what he later termed as a “sloppy” loss to Ryder Cup teammate and close pal Tommy Fleetwood.

The drama started for McIlroy on the 14th hole, a 190-yard par-3. Holding a one-stroke lead and playing in the final pairing alongside Fleetwood, McIlroy flushed a brilliant iron shot off the tee to inside of three feet, giving him a kick-in for birdie to extend his lead.

It was a short putt, yes, but it wasn’t a routine one — a downhill turner that threatened to run out on him if he hit it firm. Still, as McIlroy himself would admit, he probably should have made it. For his struggles over the last few years, Rory has been rock-solid with his putter inside of three feet, making 632 out of 634 putts from that distance, or 99.68 percent, over the 2023 PGA Tour season.

He stared down the putt and hit it wrong, never scaring the hole as it dribbled out to four feet. As Fleetwood made a routine par to remain one-down, suddenly McIlroy faced a pressure-packed three-footer coming back up the hill to maintain his lead. He sent that one skipping past the hole, too, missing on the same side.

He tapped in for a bogey four — a three-putt rarity that brought him back to even footing with Fleetwood. But there were still four holes to play, and plenty of time for McIlroy to make up the ground – which he did on the 15th and 17th, rolling in a pair of clutch birdies to bring his lead back to one stroke heading to the 72nd tee box.

He reached the 18th, a dastardly par-4 with water on either side of a narrow fairway, and reached for his driver. The club had been a weapon for him all week in Dubai, as per usual, ranking him never worse than top-10 in driving distance and top-20 in driving accuracy in any of the three rounds preceding Sunday. In the final round, though, he’d hit just 20 percent of his fairways, a 50 percent drop from Saturday. With the tournament on the line, he hit an ugly snap-hook into the water, opening a door for Fleetwood to step through.

“I tried to hit a tee shot on the last; I probably wanted to hit a different shot because that was what was most comfortable,” McIlroy said. “I tried to go with the shot that I feel like I should hit, and then I wanted to try to turn one over because it was the only way that I was going to be able to carry the bunker on the right, too. Just a bad swing at the end there.”

On the 18th, Tommy-lad made a birdie to close out the tournament at 19 under, while McIlroy made bogey to fall to 18 under. In an instant, Fleetwood had stolen the tournament.

“I think first week back out, I think you’re going to expect some of those sloppy mistakes,” McIlroy said. “Unfortunately for me, those mistakes came at the wrong time today.”

With the victory, Fleetwood earned his first win in more than a year, ending a dry spell in the winner’s circle that culminated with some of the best golf of Fleetwood’s professional career to date. The victory in Dubai was the 10th of Fleetwood’s playing career, seven of which have come on the DP World Tour.

“Rory played amazing on the back nine. He played so aggressive. He made so many birdies. Especially after 16, starting on the 17th tee, it was frustrating to then all of a sudden be one behind when you’re led all day,” Fleetwood said. “But happy with how I sort of trusted myself … Winning, it’s important. It’s a great feeling. Gives you confidence to know that you can do it the next time you’re in contention, as well.”

McIlroy, meanwhile, heads home with a rare defeat. The good news? The bad taste won’t linger for too long. Rory stays in Dubai for next week’s tournament, the Dubai Desert Classic, where he has won three times and returns as the defending champion.

James Colgan Editor

James Colgan is a news and features editor at GOLF, writing stories for the website and magazine. He manages the Hot Mic, GOLF’s media vertical, and utilizes his on-camera experience across the brand’s platforms. Prior to joining GOLF, James graduated from Syracuse University, during which time he was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from. He can be reached at