Back-nine tumble costs Rory McIlroy

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The desert turned out to be anything but an oasis for Rory McIlroy, his return to glory all but a mirage.

One bad round does not a season make, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that McIlroy is on the way back from a dreadful 2013 that saw him fall hard from his perch atop the world rankings.

But Sunday had to hurt.

With an excellent chance to win one of the European Tour's biggest tournaments, McIlroy made a mess of things at Emirates Golf Club, falling from a tie for the lead with seven holes to go to a tie for ninth, 4 strokes back of winner Stephen Gallacher at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

"Yeah, a frustrating day," McIlroy said. "The course played so much more differently than the last couple of days. The greens were a little firmer. I actually played the front nine [and] I felt pretty solid. And then … two bogeys on the par-5s on the back nine were not what I was looking for … I didn't get the ball close, didn't make any putts."

It was all there for McIlroy after Gallacher, who defended his title for just his third European Tour victory, bogeyed the first two holes and let a slew of players back into contention. None, however, were two-time major champions and none were anywhere close to armed with McIlroy's credentials.

Nobody who finished ahead of McIlroy on the leaderboard was ranked better than 60th in the world; McIlroy is sixth and was looking to move up to No. 4 with a win.

Given his recent form, including a strong opening to the tournament in which he bested Tiger Woods by 5 shots and outplayed him in nearly all aspects, the tumble down the leaderboard was stunning.

Three bogeys in four holes at the start of the back nine, including two par-5s, all but ended his chances. McIlroy shot 74 and had just two birdies, his score the highest among the last 10 players. And yet, none of them broke 70, making the missed opportunity all the more difficult.

McIlroy, 24, was clearly dejected afterward. He's been in the U.A.E. for much of the past month, arriving in Dubai a few days after proposing to his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, in Sydney on New Year's Eve.

She was headed to tennis' Australian Open, and he came here to resume preparations for 2014 after an encouraging end to 2013 that saw him post some strong finishes before beating Adam Scott down the stretch at golf's Australian Open.

McIlroy used his time in the desert well. He worked on his game in near-perfect weather conditions. He contended two weeks ago at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, where a 2-stroke penalty for an improper drop in the second round ultimately cost him a chance at victory; he finished 1 stroke out of a playoff.

And then he spent the week in between preparing for the $2.5 million Dubai event, where he captured his first European Tour title five years ago. Dubai is also where he won his last European Tour event at the close of the 2012 season, the DP World Tour Championship held at another venue.

That capped a spectacular five-victory worldwide season in which he won his second major championship and player of the year honors on both the PGA and European Tours. Then came the well-chronicled crash of 2013 and subsequent attempt at climbing back.

McIlroy opened the tournament with a seven-birdie, one-eagle, 9-under-par 63 in which he put on a driving display that suggested he had finally worked out all the issues in the part of the game that distinguishes him from all but a tiny group of players.

"His first round was unbelievable," said Gallacher, who played with McIlroy and Woods the first two rounds and again with McIlroy in the final pairing on Sunday. "I shot 66 and it was like shooting 75. Even Tiger was saying, for such a slight guy, [McIlroy] hits it so far. Ball flight just phenomenal. I've never played with anybody who flights it as good as his, [so] high and penetrating. I think he's you know, obviously it's hard to emulate the year he had before and last year he still won and he's top in the world and people think that's the slump.

"But I think he'll be contending with Tiger for the No. 1 spot. He's a class player."

McIlroy overcame a Friday stomach bug to stay in the lead, then fell 2 back of Gallacher on Saturday -- the deficit erased two holes into the final round. But McIlroy played the first nine holes without a birdie while Gallacher was struggling, allowing a slew of players back into the tournament.

Wozniacki met him inside the ropes at the 10th hole -- a rather bizarre development to occur during the course of a sporting event, and she followed him for most of the tournament. He then bogeyed the par-5 hole, one of the easiest on the course.

After a birdie at the par-3 11th, his first of the day, McIlroy was tied for the lead and in position to win. But he bogeyed the next hole as well, and then the par-5 13th. He played the back nine in 38 while Gallacher shot 33. A birdie at the 17th was too late.

"It was just one of those days," said McIlroy, who is expected to stay in Dubai a few days before heading back to Florida to prepare for his next likely event, the WGC-Match Play Championship. "It was one of those, I think anything that sort of could go wrong did. OK, I hit a couple of loose drives but I didn't really get away with them or stuff like that. … It was just sort of, yeah, one of those days."

McIlroy clearly seemed at a loss for words, and it's understandable. As it turned out, a round of 70, 2 under par, would have put him in a playoff with Gallacher on a day when the Northern Irishman played the par 5s in 2 over par.

It's pretty easy to see where the tournament went wrong.

After hitting 12 of 14 fairways on Thursday, McIlory could never manage to hit half of them the rest of the tournament, finding only six on Sunday, the day he hit the fewest number of greens (11). He also took 30 putts. That's not going to get it done.

The driver, mostly, is what gave him fits in 2013, and he seemingly worked that out with a new Nike model he put into play toward the end of the year. He drove the ball beautifully on Thursday, so well that it was hard to envision it not continuing.

It didn't, and McIlroy was left Sunday to ponder a difficult loss.