Rafael Cabrera-Bello held his nerve against a star-studded field Sunday to win the Dubai Desert Classic, shooting a 4-under 68 to beat Lee Westwood and Stephen Gallacher by one shot for his second European Tour victory.
Westwood and Gallacher could have forced a playoff in the windy conditions, but both players missed their birdie putts on the 18th. That brought a groan from the packed gallery but a broad smile from the No. 119-ranked Spaniard, who got on the phone to share the news of his victory with his parents and girlfriend back home in the Canary Islands.
The win moves Cabrera-Bello — his only other victory came at the Austrian Open in 2009 — into the top 60 and onto the elite list of golfers who will play in the Match Play Championship in Arizona that begins Feb. 23.
”It’s been a really, really special week for me,” Cabrera-Bello said as he accepted the trophy. ”I played great the entire week. With so many big names up there, I really felt proud of myself. I wanted to fight. I stayed calm and I did everything I read you should do in these situation. It was really amazing.”
Marcel Siem, who also started the final round one shot back, finished three behind in fourth with a 15-under total of 273. George Coetzee (70) of South Africa, Scott Jamieson (71) of Scotland, Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark and US Open Champion Rory McIlroy (71) of Northern Ireland were a shot farther back in fifth.
Fourth-ranked Martin Kaymer of Germany, two shots off the lead after the third round, struggled to a 1-over 74 and finished in a tie for 13th. Thomas Bjorn of Denmark, also in contention Saturday, finished with a 1-under 71 and a tie for ninth.
Cabrera-Bello is the latest low-profile player to win a European Tour event this year, following the lead of England’s Robert Rock, who beat Tiger Woods to win the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship last month. The Spaniard said beating such a talented field only confirmed that he can play with anyone.
”Just the fact I was able to be successful today proves to me that I’m working on the right line,” Cabrera-Bello said. ”It gives me a lot of confidence that I have proven to myself that I can perform at least one week as good as them. It’s a huge morale booster.”
When the round started, it seemed everything was set up for a Westwood win.
He started with a one-shot lead over Cabrera-Bello and had 21 European Tour victories under his belt compared to three for the three players in second. He spoke of ”knowing how to play with a lead” and felt his putting had steadily improved — noting that he needed only 27 putts on Saturday.
But after making a 35-foot eagle putt from just off the green on the second to go up by two, Westwood’s putting woes re-emerged. He bogeyed the fifth to fall into a tie with Cabrera-Bello and then missed birdie chances on the ninth and 10th holes.
Instead, it was the Spaniard who showed just the right touch down the stretch. He made a birdie on 11 for a share of the lead and followed that with a birdie on 12th for the outright lead.
He then made his best shot of the day on 16, after his drive landed on a sandy hillside behind a grove of palm trees. His caddy advised him to play it safe and avoid the trees, but he went for the green — clearing the trees and landing his 150-yard shot just left of the green.
”I just didn’t go for it to see what happened,” said Cabrera-Bello, who ran up the hill to follow the shot. ”I really believed I could do it. And then when I hit the ball, I said please don’t hit anything else. I don’t want to hear any other noise.”
The Spaniard then chipped to within a few feet and saved par. Westwood then birdied his 16th to draw even. But rather than let the pressure get to him, Cabrera-Bello birdied the 17th. On No. 18, he took a conservative approach to the final par 5, just missing a long birdie putt but sinking a 2-footer for par for the clubhouse lead.
Then he sat back and waited.
Westwood, who just missed an eagle putt on 16, found the greenside rough on the 18th in two shots. But his 120-foot chip ran well past the hole. He had a 25-foot birdie putt to force the playoff, but it came up just short, ending his chances of winning his first tournament of the season.
But Cabrera-Bello’s wait was not yet over. Stephen Gallacher (69), who was a shot back after sinking a 40-foot eagle putt on 13, also had a chance to force a playoff. He needed to sink a 15-footer for birdie, but his attempt rolled past.
Westwood didn’t talk with reporters after his round. Gallacher, however, admitted he was ”disappointed” not to have forced a playoff.
”Well, struggled a bit off the tee today, but I hit a lot of good iron shots and made a few putts at the right time,” Gallacher said. ”But I had a chance to sort of get into the playoff on the last so just a wee bit disappointed.”
Still, the 148th-ranked Scotsman was ”happy overall” to be playing well, considering he was sidelined for much of 2009 with a debilitating viral infection that he had picked up in Dubai.
McIlroy, who led at the halfway point, also said he could have done better. He three-putted to open with a bogey and then went in the water on the ninth for a double bogey to take himself out of contention. He recovered for four birdies on the back nine including ending with one on the 17th and 18th for a respectable finish.
”It was obviously playing a little tougher out there today with the wind,” McIlroy said of gusts that were forecast to reach 25 miles per hour (40 kph). ”It’s the strongest breeze we’ve had all week, and it was tough. The greens were a little firmer. It was close to get the ball close to the hole.”