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Duel in Dubai: Donald, McIlroy battle for title

Luke Donald
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – After rallying to win the Hong Kong Open in dramatic fashion Sunday, U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy brings plenty of momentum into this week’s showdown with world No. 1 Luke Donald for the European Tour money title.

The No. 2-ranked McIlroy knows it won’t be easy snatching the Race to Dubai title from current leader Donald. The 22-year-old Northern Irishman trails Donald by just under $1 million and must win the Dubai World Championship starting Thursday, and hope that Donald finishes outside the top nine – something the Englishman has done only three times on the European Tour this year.

“Still got a slim chance of trying to win the Race to Dubai and so it’s nice to just have that coming to the quick,” said McIlroy, whose Hong Kong win ensured the Race would come down to the final tournament.

“It’s going to be a tough task but I’ll give my best and it would be great to finish the year on a high.”

Donald is not the only golfer McIlroy has to worry about. He must also finish ahead of two of the hottest golfers on the European Tour right now - No. 3-ranked Lee Westwood, who won the Nedbank Golf Challenge on Sunday, and No. 4 Martin Kaymer, who had birdies on the final nine of 12 holes to win the HSBC Championship last month to get his topsy-turvy season back on track.

And McIlroy has to overcome his own shaky fitness. He acknowledged he is still feeling some of the fatigue that hurt his play in the second and third rounds in Hong Kong. He said it might be the lingering effects of a virus he picked up in the past few months, though he said blood tests taken Monday to check his white blood cell count haven’t come back.

“I’m not energy wise where I want to be but I took a day off yesterday and took it easy,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent but I’m still able to go out and play 18 holes and try and give it my all.”

McIlroy said he took inspiration from his finish on Sunday – a come-from-behind victory which he clinched with a greenside bunker shot on the 18th – as well as his previous experience on the Greg Norman-designed Earth course at Jumeirah Golf Estates. He finished fifth last year and third in 2009, though his 2009 finish cost him the Race to Dubai title when Westwood won the tournament and the money title.

“Hopefully, it won’t come down to having to hole a bunker shot at the last,” McIlroy joked. “But if it does, I know that I’ve done it before so I’m really looking forward to this week. It’s a golf course that I’ve had some success on the last couple of years with a third and fifth place.”

Donald said he wasn’t surprised that McIlroy had kept alive the Race to Dubai that features 52 tournaments on the European Tour. It sets up a dramatic finale at the $7.5 million Dubai World Championship, similar to the 2010 tournament in Dubai when Kaymer beat Graeme McDowell to win the money title and a year before that when Westwood blew away the field to win the title over McIlroy.

“I didn’t expect anything less from Rory,” Donald said after finishing seventh at the Nedbank Golf Challenge. “I knew he’d put the pressure on me and make it tough going. But I’ve still got a nice comfortable lead – he’s going to have to go out and win next week and beat a high quality field, and I think the advantage is still in my court.”

The tournament normally features the tour’s 60 top money earners, but Justin Rose pulled out as his wife is expecting their second child and Fredrik Jacobson will not be playing because of injury. No players will replace them.

Donald, who has the chance to make history by adding the European money title to the PGA Tour title he already has won, knows what it’s like to be in McIlroy’s shoes. Donald’s scintillating finish to win Disney’s Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic snatched the U.S. money title from Webb Simpson and put him on course for unprecedented success on both money lists.

“I turned on the scores and saw Rory was having a good day and some of the other guys ahead of him weren’t putting too much pressure on him,” Donald said. “So he did what he needed to do and won the tournament. It was the same in Disney, except this time I have a lead, so I hope I can hold on to the lead.”

Arriving Tuesday in Dubai, Donald’s tweet indicated he may be starting to feel the pressure. “Just got to Dubai, With Rory, Lee and Tiger winning, feeling a bit ganged up on!!”

Kaymer said he felt it would be a good battle but he predicted that Donald would come out ahead.

“With Rory and Luke, it’s exciting. It’s almost the same – almost the same that we had last year with Greame and me,” Kaymer said. “But I don’t really believe that Luke will have a bad week. The way he played golf the last few months … So I think it would be very difficult for Rory but I’m sure he will be aggressive and try and do everything to try and win, and then that puts a little bit of pressure on Luke for the weekend.”

Westwood also favors Donald, though he welcomed the duel, saying it was a great way to cap what has been “a very good year” for the European Tour.

“All the top players have played pretty well this year, been successful in the major championships,” Westwood said. “So yeah, I think it has been a very good year. I think that’s part of the reason why the money has not dropped. I don’t want to say we give value for money because we are playing for a lot of money. But it’s certainly a good brand and a good product, the European Tour, at the moment.”