Heartbreak For McIlroy In Dubai - Should He Have Laid Up At The 18th?

After finding water at the last, the four-time Major champion would miss out on a play-off spot by just one shot

Rory at the 18th
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Despite still being in his early 30s, Rory McIlroy has achieved and seen it all in the game of golf. However, on Sunday afternoon at the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic, the four-time Major champion produced a mistake that cost him the event.

Playing the last hole, he was faced with an approach which featured a 10-mph headwind, a 260-yard carry over water and a mud ball. Needing a birdie to win, or a par to join the playoff, the 32-year-old decided to go for the one in fifty shot, with his ball, inevitably, finding a watery grave.

As he failed to get up and down, it was a sorry ending for McIlroy, who, up until that point, had done well to keep himself in contention. With a handful of holes to go, the Northern Irishman looked to be the favourite, needing to find just one birdie to take the lead and secure his third Dubai Desert Classic crown. 

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After a superb par-save at the 17th, it was down to the Emirates Golf Club's iconic 18th, a par-5 that, on the Friday and Saturday, he had comfortably birdied.

Opting for a 3-wood off the tee, which, was probably the right play, as it took out the danger of the pond that runs down the right hand side of the fairway, McIlroy did put himself into play, albeit 270 yards away from the centre of the green.

For those who are unsure how the last hole is laid out at the Emirates Golf Club, there is a huge lake in front of the green, with some space to bail out, if you choose to go for it, on the left hand side. Faced with this conundrum of whether to go for it or lay up, McIlroy was forced to wait in the fairway as the group in front finished up their rounds. 

Needing a birdie to win and a par for a play-off, the sensible and correct thing to do would be to lay up to a comfortable number, wedge the ball on to the green and attempt to hole it with the birdie putt. Even if it misses, then you're in a play-off.

If the odds were even more in the favour of a lay up, it maybe worth noting that the golf ball of McIlroy's had a tiny bit of mud on it which could not only affect the flight, but also the distance, a crucial factor in a shot that is playing into wind and is all carry! 260 yards of all carry, into wind, with a mud ball - the decision was simple, surely?

McIlroy and caddie discuss the shot

McIlroy discusses the second shot at the 18th with his caddie - McIlroy was made to wait for over five minutes to play the shot

(Image credit: Getty Images)

After watching his playing partners lay up, McIlroy reached for the 3-wood again but, after waiting around for a while to hit the shot, his bid to hit the green never looked like succeeding, with his ball tailing off and landing in the drink well short of the green.

He could still have joined the play-off if he had managed to get up and down after taking a drop eighty yards short of the green, but his putt following his wedge shot lipped-out, handing McIlroy a bogey that meant he would miss out on a chance at a third Desert Classic title.

What perhaps may have hurt more for McIlroy is that his playing partners, Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Harding, both made a birdie and a par with their lay ups. A real kick in the teeth, as either score would have given him a chance.

Fleetwood and Harding shake hands

Fleetwood and Harding shot rounds of 75 and 76 - Harding had been leading by two going into the final round

(Image credit: Getty Images)

So was McIlroy correct in going for it? The simple answer is no. I understand that hindsight is a wonderful thing and that McIlroy is one of the most exciting players on the planet when he is in full-flow and it's moments like these that make him so appealing to watch.

If the shot had come off, then I would be titling this piece 'McIlroy Hits Shot Of The Year Contender'. However, I am not. The possibilities of that shot coming off were probably one in 50 and it's a shame, especially after what we have seen of McIlroy over the past year or so.

At the CJ Cup, he played a perfect final round, plotting his way around the Vegas layout meticulously as he held off world number two, Collin Morikawa. Another example was his victory at the Wells Fargo Championship, where McIlroy and caddie, Harry Diamond, wisely took a penalty drop from a dangerous lie in a hazard on the closing hole. He would go on to birdie the hole and win by a shot, with that drop proving the pivotal point in the round.

Perhaps the shot at the 18th in Dubai was a moment of madness. Perhaps the 32-year-old saw the shot and couldn't resist having a go. We've all done it on a golf course and it shows how humbling the sport is when the world's best can make the same mistakes as us amateurs. Let's just hope that McIlroy learns from the incident and can push on because, without him, golf wouldn't be as exciting.

McIlroy and Diamond celebrate

McIlroy and Diamond at the 2021 Wells Fargo - After the event, McIlroy said "Harry was awesome out there, especially that decision on the last. This is Harry and I's sixth win together and it's probably been our best one".

(Image credit: Getty Images)
Matt Cradock
Staff Writer

Matt joined Golf Monthly in February 2021 covering weekend news, before also transitioning to equipment and testing. After freelancing for Golf Monthly and The PGA for 18 months, he was offered a full-time position at the company in October 2022 and continues to cover weekend news and social media, as well as help look after Golf Monthly’s many buyers’ guides and equipment reviews.


Taking up the game when he was just seven years of age, Matt made it into his county squad just a year later and continues to play the game at a high standard, with a handicap of around 2-4. To date, his best round came in 2016, where he shot a six-under-par 66 having been seven-under through nine holes. He currently plays at Witney Lakes in Oxfordshire and his favourite player is Rory McIlroy, despite nearly being struck by his second shot at the 17th during the 2015 BMW PGA Championship.


Matt’s current What’s In The Bag?

Driver: Honma TW747, 8.75°

Fairway Wood: TaylorMade Rocketballz Stage 2, 15°, 19°

Hybrid: Adams Super Hybrid, 22°

Irons: Mizuno MP54, 5-PW

Wedges: Cleveland 588 RTX 2.0 Tour Satin, 50°, 56°, 60°

Putter: Cleveland TFI 2135 Satin Cero

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x