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.