SHEFIELDS' Danny Willett narrowly missed out on seizing pole position from Rory McIlroy in the Race to Dubai.
But the Yorkshireman’s tied 28th place in the BMW Masters ensured the 2015 European Tour season is set for a fascinating finale at next week’s DP World Tour Championship, Dubai.
Willett needed to finish 28th on his own, or better, at Lake Malaren Golf Club to end McIlroy’s 31-week reign at The Race to Dubai summit, and he appeared on course to achieve that when he posted three birdies in the opening 11 holes of his final round.
A bogey on the par three 17th hole, however, ultimately cost him the honour of teeing it up in Dubai at the top of the pile, as he signed for a two-unde-par 70, with Alex Levy and Peter Uihlein joining him on seven under par.
It means McIlroy retains his place at the summit by the slenderest of margins, with a mere 1,613 points now separating the pair as they head to Jumeriah Golf Estates, in Dubai, for the season-ending event.
Willett had been aiming to take advantage of McIlroy’s absence in Shanghai to shift the momentum his way, but instead he struggled with his putter and now makes the journey to Dubai hoping for a change in fortunes on the greens.
“Last week was pretty stale and obviously I had a good last round, and this week’s just been stale again,” he said. “I putted pretty poorly for four days. I never really got anything going. I just struggled a bit. It’s close though and I guess you can look at it as if I go there next week and I win, I win. It’s one of those good situations to be in.
“I will try and take a few positives, even though I feel like it could have put a bit of space there this week but, like I said, I really, really struggled on the greens.”
McIlroy has held the top spot on the Race to Dubai since April 12, after he finished fourth at the Masters, and the Northern Irishman then pulled clear of the chasing pack with victory in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play a month later.
Prior to that, it was Willett who set the early pace following his victory in the lucrative Nedbank Golf Challenge, the season’s curtain-raiser, along with a share of fourth position in the Alfred Dunhill Championship and further top 15 finishes in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
With McIlroy ruled out of action for five weeks during the summer because of an ankle injury, Willett closed the gap with a top-six finish in the Open at St Andrews and his second victory of 2015 in the Omega European Masters a week later.
He made up further ground with a share of third place in the 72° OPEN D’ITALIA presented by DAMIANI, before an impressive closing 62 in last week’s WGC-HSBC Champions moved him to within touching distance of the former world No 1.
It all now comes down to the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai, but it is far from a two-horse race, with Justin Rose, Shane Lowry, Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace all also set to tee it up knowing that a victory in the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai could secure the coveted Race to Dubai crown, while Byeong Hun An also retains an outside chance following his tied third finish in Shanghai last week.
For his part, Willett is looking forward to one final push as he aims to end his best season to date on a high note.
“I’ve got a day and a half off to regroup and chill out, and I know I’m going to have a chance next week,” he said. “I know if I win, I win. If I beat Rory, with a few other permutations, I win, as well. There are a lot of positives to take.
“I’m a bit frustrated at the minute, but I’ll just try and take all the positives I can and have a day off and get my head back on and get my thoughts together and keep working hard and hopefully a few will drop next week.”
After hanging on to his long-term advantage, McIlroy will now look to his remarkable record at Jumeirah Golf Estates as further cause for optimism as he chases a third Race to Dubai crown in four years.
The four-time Major Champion has finished in the top five in five of his six appearances in the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai, winning the title in 2012 and finishing joint runner-up behind Henrik Stenson 12 months ago.
Meanwhile, in-form Rose is hoping he has timed his run perfectly after following up his victory in the UBS Hong Kong Open three weeks ago with a share of seventh place in the BMW Masters.
The 2013 US Open Champion, who was also joint runner up in Dubai last year, is up to third place in The Race to Dubai, just 650,999 points behind McIlroy, with 1,333,330 on offer to the winner next week.
“Tied seventh is obviously a decent week and no one ahead of me on the Race to Dubai played better than me, so I caught up a bit of ground on Rory and Danny,” said Rose. “It’s going to be very tight going into Dubai. I think I’m going to have to win next week.
“I always knew I was going to have to win one of these two weeks, so hopefully I’m deferring and can finish it off on the grand stage in Dubai.”