News & Opinion

McIlroy KOs Bay Hill like you-know-who

ORLANDO, Fla. – With a 25-foot birdie putt at the final hole of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday, Rory McIlroy capped off a flawless round of golf that had him pumping his fist and lifting his arms to the heavens as if sending a message to the tournament namesake who is so sorely missed. 

“I’ve seen Tiger Woods make this putt enough times to know what it does, so I just wanted to try and emulate that,” McIlroy said. “Didn't quite give it the hat toss; I was thinking about doing it. But, I mean, just to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.” 

McIlroy erased a two-stroke deficit at the beginning of the day and shot a sizzling bogey-free 8-under 64 for an 18-under 270 total to win by three strokes over Bryson DeChambeau (scores). It was McIlroy's first title since the 2016 Tour Championship, which happened to be on Sept. 25, the day that Palmer died.

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© GOLFFILE/DALTON HAMM
For Rory McIlroy, the wait for Tour victory No. 14 finally ends.

© GOLFFILE/DALTON HAMM
For Rory McIlroy, the wait for Tour victory No. 14 finally ends.

McIlroy, 28, endured his first winless season as a professional in 2017, a year in which he was sidelined with an injury, married Erica Stoll and flamed out of the FedEx Cup without a chance to defend at the Tour Championship. After an extended off-season layoff, McIlroy has posted early-season results that could be summarized as below his standard. The former No. 1 player in the world, McIlroy had slipped to No. 13 entering the API. In a conference call with reporters ahead of the Honda Classic, Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee and David Duval didn't pull any punches in assessing the state of McIlroy's game. 

“He’s completely out of sorts," Chamblee said. “It’s not the Rory McIlroy that won four major championships. So, he’s going to have to figure out a way to sharpen up his iron play going into Augusta. And then obviously there’s still work left to be done on the greens that continues to plague him. . . . He’s still a formidable player, no question about it, and there’s still a threat there, but he’s gone into Augusta every year of his career in better shape than he’s in right now, I would argue.”

When it was Duval's turn to talk, he piled on, saying, “I saw him on television last week [at Riviera] and asked Brandel [Chamblee], ‘Who do you think is closer to playing great, Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods?’ And to me it’s an obvious answer. And I think that says a lot about what’s going on.” 

McIlroy finished T-59 at Honda and missed the cut last week at the Valspar Championship. His putter has been more foe than friend. McIlroy entered the week ranked No. 124 in strokes gained putting this season, which actually reflected a slight improvement over 2016-17 (No. 140). On Monday, he spent three hours in Palm Beach Gardens with renowned putter Brad Faxon, who helped unlock the genius inside McIlroy. 

“It was more of a psychology lesson than anything else,” said McIlroy, who switched from a 33-inch-long putter to a 34¼-inch model, which is what he used to win four major championships.

It worked. Asked to recall the last time that he witnessed McIlroy putt this well, Justin Rose, who played alongside his Ryder Cup teammate on Sunday, didn't hesitate. “Never,” he said.

Rose wasn't exaggerating. McIlroy led the field in strokes gained putting (+10.027, the best of his career), and took just 100 putts for four rounds, the fewest of his Tour career.

But it was actually a hole where McIlroy didn't have to use his short stick that he took a seemingly commanding lead. One day after McIlroy complained about concession alcohol sales leading to an over-lubricated crowd at PGA Tour events – on St. Patrick's Day, no less – the Northern Irishman whipped the crowd into a frenzy when he chipped in from 42 feet left of the green at No. 15 for birdie. He motioned with his hand for the gallery members to make more noise, and they obliged, breaking into a lusty chant of “RO-RY, RO-RY!”

McIlroy notched his 14th PGA Tour title at Bay Hill, a course that he avoided earlier in his career. In late 2012, Palmer appeared on Golf Channel's “Morning Drive” show and gave McIlroy a playful ultimatum. “I’m going to tell you something: If he doesn’t come and play Bay Hill, he might have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he’s going to play next,” Palmer said.

McIlroy skipped again in 2013, but when he made his API debut the next year, he and Palmer met for dinner. McIlroy treasures the memories, which include an unusual request by Palmer.

“I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A.1. Sauce?’ And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ He said, ‘No, for me,’ ” McIlroy said. 

It was the start of a beautiful friendship, and McIlroy has become a Bay Hill regular. Palmer would have liked nothing better than seeing the winner of his tournament birdie five of the last six holes and then slip into the winner’s red cardigan sweater. McIlroy’s victory renewed talk of “The Shamrock Slam.” He needs just a Masters title at Augusta National three weeks from Sunday to become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.

“It’s huge for my confidence going into the next few weeks, and I kept saying I didn’t need a win going into Augusta to feel like I had a chance; I just wanted to see signs of good golf. Thankfully, I’ve been able to get both today,” he said.

McIlroy is scheduled to play his final pre-Masters tournament this week at the WGC Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas. When asked whether he is satisfied with the way his beefed-up schedule this season has prepared him for golf’s first major, McIlroy smiled and said, “I’ll tell you after Augusta.”

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak