Hard lines if you missed the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill because it was golf at its best and we should applaud not just McIlroy but also Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and, of course, Tiger Woods for their part in serving up such a treat.
“The King” himself would have been watching down from the grandstand in the sky with a huge smile as that quintet effectively fought out a thrilling last-day battle, which was settled in the end by McIlroy producing a brilliant late burst that yielded five birdies in the last six holes to close with an eight-under-par 64.
So much for him not being able to hole putts, something that is constantly used by certain individuals when, for some reason, they seem determined to be critical of McIlroy. Helped, admittedly, by some advice from Brad Faxon, he confidently rolled in putt after putt – there was a chip in, too – from the sixth hole onwards and, with every other aspect of his game looking as good as it did from the off this year in Abu Dhabi back in January, no wonder he described it as “a perfect round of golf”.
It was the 28-year-old’s first victory since September 2018. That triumph in the Tour Championship, which also clinched a FedEx Cup win, came on the day that Palmer passed away. “It’s a little ironic,” admitted McIlroy of his return to winning ways in the PGA Tour event bearing Palmer’s name. “The last time I won was bittersweet because we lost an absolute legend, an icon of the game, so for me to get my next win here means a lot.”
To really put into context the significance of McIlroy’s success on Sunday, you have to turn the clock back to the middle of last year. Hampered by a rib injury, his game had become very ragged indeed, as anyone who witnessed an error-strewn opening round that led to a missed cut in the Scottish Open at Dundonald Links would testify. It was performances like that which led him to take the bull by the horns and shut down his 2017 campaign early and, in fairness to McIlroy, he had it all planned out in terms of exactly what was required to get himself back firing on all cylinders again.
Standing outside the St Andrews Links clubhouse after the final round of the Dunhill Links Championship, he told a small group of golf scribes what he had in mind and how that was aimed at getting himself ready for the 2018 Masters and, guess what, Rory will be bounding up Magnolia Lane in a fortnight’s time.
“I’ve always believed in myself and I know that me being 100 per cent healthy is good enough to not just win on the PGA Tour but win a lot,” said McIlroy. “I know that I’ve got a gift for this game, so I never lost belief. I guess that’s what’s kept me going. Golf is so fickle and you’re never far away from – at least I feel I’m never far away from producing golf like what I did today. But, on the flipside, I don’t think you’re ever far away from producing mediocre golf as well.”
Rarely have we ever thought of McIlroy as mediocre and, from the moment I watched him in full flight earlier in the year in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai –he’s someone you really need to see in the flesh to fully appreciate how impressive he really is – I’ve felt confident he will win at least one major this year. The Masters, of course, is the one he would love to land as that would see him become just the sixth player to complete a career Grand Slam.
“It’s huge,” he said of what winning again has done for his confidence. “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, and thankfully I’ve been able to get both today. There’s three of us that are going for the Grand Slam this year (Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth need the US Open and US PGA respectively to join that elite band) and I feel like it’s exciting times. Obviously I’m glad to be a part of that conversation, getting the first shot at it in a few weeks so we’ll see how we go.” With each passing week, anticipation levels for that opening men’s major of the year just go up and up. It can’t come quick enough.