At the Arnold Palmer Invitational, it’s never long before the talk turns to legends. It starts with the tournament’s namesake, Palmer, segues to eight-time API winner Tiger Woods, and Sunday night moved onto another legend, albeit one we hadn’t heard from for a while.
Rory McIlroy, breaking a winless streak that extended back to the 2016 Tour Championship, shot a bogey-free, 8-under 64 to pick up his 14th PGA Tour victory at Bay Hill.
“Yeah, it’s been awhile,” said McIlroy, who led the field in driving distance (316.5 yards); proximity to the hole (29 feet, 7 inches); scrambling (80.77%); and strokes gained: putting (2.507).
“Oh, what a day.”
Zero bogeys.March 18, 2018
McIlroy, who took a putting lesson from friend Brad Faxon early in the week, went even par for his first five holes, then played what he termed a “flawless” final 13 holes, going 8-under.
He shot up 154 spots in the FedExCup, to 24th, is projected to move back into the top 10 in the world, and joins Woods and Phil Mickelson as the only players in the modern era to win 14 or more times by age 30.
“I’ve always believed in myself and I know that me being 100% healthy is good enough to not just win on the PGA Tour, but win a lot,” McIlroy said. “And I guess that’s what kept me going.” Last season was the first since 2008 that McIlroy had failed to win on any tour.
Granted, he had a lot going on. He changed his equipment and his caddie, got married, fought through a rib injury, bought a new house and began remodelling it. Still, no wins. And the start of this season seemed to bring more of the same. McIlroy had missed two cuts in four Tour starts coming into Bay Hill.
All of that pent-up potential, though, burst through in a torrent of red numbers on Sunday.
McIlroy made birdie putts of just over 10 feet at the sixth, seven and ninth holes, then started filling up the highlight reel. He made a 21-footer at 14, chipped in at 15, and he was just getting started.
McIlroy posted a 373-yard drive down the 16th fairway, leading to an easy two-putt birdie, and topped everything off with a curling, 25-foot birdie putt at 18, a putt he later said he’d seen Woods make more than once.
You can draw a lot of straight lines between McIlroy and Woods, who shot a final-round 69 to tie for fifth at 10-under, eight back.
Nearly seven years ago, with Woods seemingly winding down, McIlroy won the 2011 US Open at Congressional.
Golf’s next big megastar had come along right on cue. When McIlroy won The Honda Classic the next year to take over the No. 1 ranking (from Luke Donald), he beat Woods by two.
They shared a sponsor and a rapport, and seemed to have positioned themselves in the history books as contiguous rulers of the game.
Then Jordan Spieth came along, and Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, as McIlroy spun his wheels. He lost his top ranking and had fallen all the way to 13th by the time he got to Orlando.
But as we’ve seen with Mickelson, Woods and now McIlroy, legends don’t stay down for long.
Before his Sunday fireworks at Bay Hill, the last time McIlroy had lifted a trophy, at the Tour Championship at East Lake, where he also won the FedExCup, was September 25, 2016. That was the day that Palmer died.
McIlroy was asked about the coincidence more than once Sunday.
“For me to get my next win here is, it means a lot,” he said. “I’ve had quite a connection with Arnold Palmer over the past few years and I’ve been very fortunate to spend some time with him here and he was always so nice to me. I’ve got so many letters from him from wins and all sorts of stuff.
“I wish he would have been at the top of the hill to shake my hand when I came off the 18th green there,” McIlroy said.
“But hopefully, he’s proud of me with the way I played that back nine. I tried to be as aggressive as I could and tried to take on shots when I needed to, just like he would have. So yeah, it’s come full circle since that day in September in 2016, and just proud to be sitting up here and have my name on that trophy.”
Bay Hill was rocking all afternoon, mostly for that red shirt. Woods, who started the final round five shot behind, made three birdies in a four-hole stretch to start the back nine and was within shot of the lead as everyone behind him on the course appeared to stall. One shot changed everything.
Woods couldn’t commit to a swing with his driver on the par-5 16th hole and sent it far and left — way left — over a fence and out-of-bounds, sending him to a bogey when he couldn’t afford anything less than birdie.
He finished bogey-bogey-par for a 3-under 69 and tumbled down the leaderboard into a tie for fifth.
That’s about when McIlroy pulled away.
McIlroy faced one last challenge from Bryson DeChambeau, who had closed to within one shot with an eagle on the 16th hole.
McIlroy saw the score posted on the leaderboard to the right of the 18th fairway, and he answered with a 7-iron over the water on the 18th to about 25 feet above the hole.
It was the type of putt the gallery has seen Woods make to win in 2001, 2008 and 2009.
McIlroy buried it, raised both arms in the air and turned to slam his fist as the grandstands erupted with cheers.
Justin Rose lingered all day but was never a threat over the final hour, instead watching McIlroy put on a stunning charge.
“Rory played incredible golf and it was fun — great to see world class players do that,” Rose said after a 67.
“It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me. But when he is making putts, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”
His next stop is the Masters, where Woods will be a favourite to win his fifth green jacket. And to think that just over six months ago, Woods hadn’t been cleared by his doctors to hit balls after fusion surgery on his lower back, his fourth back surgery dating to the spring of 2014.
“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” he said.
McIlroy was relieved for other reasons. He went through an injury-plagued 2017 and failed to win anywhere in the world.
He was coming off a missed cut a week ago in the Valspar Championship. And now he’s a winner again, with the Masters looming.
McIlroy needs only a green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam.
“I kept saying I didn’t need a win going into Augusta to feel like I had a chance,” McIlroy said.
“I just wanted to see signs of good golf. And thankfully, I’ve been able to get both today.” He ended the night wearing the red sweater that goes to the winner, and raised a glass of Ketel One vodka — Palmer’s favourite — to toast the King.
McIlroy took a swig and said, “Wooo! Strong.” Just like his finish.
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