DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rory McIlroy watched his 15-foot birdie putt roll into the cup, clenched his fist, and let out a roar to celebrate a victory that felt bigger and sweeter than most.
Because of the guy he beat as much as the big title he won.
The top-ranked McIlroy overcame a final-round charge from Patrick Reed to win the Dubai Desert Classic for the third time Monday after a tense duel between players who were involved in a pre-tournament spat.
McIlroy finished birdie-birdie to shoot 4-under-par 68 and win by a stroke over Reed, who shot 65.
“Mentally, today was probably one of the toughest rounds I have ever had to play because it would be really easy to let your emotions get in the way,” McIlroy said. “I just had to really focus on myself and forget who was up there on the leaderboard.”
McIlroy and Reed traded verbal blows Wednesday after an interaction — of sorts — at the practice range on Tuesday that saw McIlroy snub Reed, who had gone over to wish the Northern Irishman a happy new year.
Reed walked away before lightly tossing a tee — featuring a logo of his 4 Aces team in the LIV Golf league — in the direction of McIlroy, one of the most vocal critics of the Saudi-run breakaway series.
Reed said it was “unfortunate” that McIlroy didn’t shake his hand and was quoted as describing McIlroy as “an immature little child.”
Hence McIlroy’s sense of satisfaction after making the title-clinching putt on the par-5 18th — a hole where he has encountered big problems over the past year.
“This is probably sweeter than it should be,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy started a year with a win for the first time in his career — he has come close numerous times in nearby Abu Dhabi, where he has typically chosen to play his year-opening tournament — and backed up victories at the Dubai Desert Classic in 2009 and 2015.
He decided to take extra time off around Christmas because, in his words, he was “mentally drained” by effectively being an anti-LIV spokesman last year.
He couldn’t escape those issues during his time off, either. McIlroy said he was served a subpoena on Christmas Eve from Larry Klayman — an attorney who has filed a lawsuit against the PGA Tour and European tour for suspending players who have signed with LIV Golf. Reed is not involved in that lawsuit. Klayman also represents Reed in lawsuits filed against a number of media outlets.
A final-day duel between McIlroy and Reed looked unlikely, with McIlroy starting Monday with a three-shot lead — and four ahead of American. However, he was overtaken on the back nine by Reed, who picked up seven shots in his first 13 holes while McIlroy was playing safety-first golf.
Reed bogeyed No. 16, could only make par at the drivable 17th after hitting his tee shot into a small bush but birdied No. 18 to put pressure on McIlroy, who had two-putted for birdie at No. 17 to move back into a share of the lead.
McIlroy's drive on No. 18 dribbled into the rough beside the water to the right of the fairway — he watched it all the way, clearly fearing the worst — and he decided to lay up. His third shot from 92 yards was close enough and, as Reed watched from the scorer's hut, McIlroy made the putt.
McIlroy finished on 19-under overall. He wound up winning with his B game and was particularly proud how he held up down the last, having hit shots into the water in front of the green on Sunday and also in the final round last year, costing him the title.
“It was a battle all day — honestly, it's been a battle all week,” McIlroy. "I feel as if I haven’t had my best all week but just managed my game so well and played really smart. Even that second shot at the last. I probably could have got to the green but with what happened yesterday and last year, I tried to give myself a wedge and get it up and down for the win.
“Ecstatic that I gave myself the opportunity the first week back out. I managed my game well."
Reed was attempting to become the first LIV Golf player to win an event on the European tour. Players from the Saudi-run series that changed the face of golf in 2022 are still able to play on the tour ahead of the imminent ruling of a British arbiter, who is reviewing whether the tour has the right to issue bans to those members who joined LIV without clearance.
Initial bans were lifted last year by the arbiter, pending a full legal review.
Ian Poulter, another LIV golfer, joined Reed in attempting to hunt down McIlroy but his challenge ended after making double-bogey at the last. He shot 70 and was tied for sixth, six shot off the lead.
Lucas Herbert of Australia shot 66 and placed third, three strokes behind McIlroy.