“I feel like I got what I wanted out of the week by playing four good competitive rounds,” said the world No 1 after holing a five-foot birdie putt at the last for a closing 70 to finish joint-11th on 11-under-par.
After missing the cut in the Honda Classic and then misfiring in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in his two previous outings, McIlroy broke par for all four circuits in Orlando. He failed to get within striking distance in an event won for the second year running by American Matt Every, but it was a pleasing final warm-up before he heads to The Masters bidding to win a third major in a row and also complete the career Grand Slam.
“I saw progress on some of the stuff I had been working on but still need to work on some things,” added the 25-year-old. “It’s been a decent week and I feel happy with my progress. I have another couple of weeks and hopefully I will go to Augusta feeling ready.
“I’m excited to be going there with an opportunity to win three majors in a row and complete the career Grand Slam. It’s a nice position to be in. I’m going to embrace it, not build it up too much, but I know it’s a big deal.”
After his opening round, McIlroy had dinner with the tournament host. “It was nice to spend time in his company,” he said of Palmer, who is set to design his first course on Scottish soil at Castle Stuart, near Inverness. “It was very enjoyable and is something I will look back on in years to come and remember for a long time.”
In a dramatic final round, Henrik Stenson saw a two-shot lead turned into a one-shot deficit before getting his nose in front again. But, after two three putts back-to-back, the Swede was overtaken again after Every birdied the last from 16 feet.
Stenson played the front nine in one-under-par but was overtaken by an inspired Morgan Hoffmann, the American surging to the top of the leaderboard with five birdies in the first eight holes.
The final pairing were both two-under-par through the first four holes before a two-shot swing on the fifth, where Stenson three-putted and Hoffmann holed from five feet for birdie to draw level. Hoffmann then birdied the sixth and eighth from close range to move two ahead, before dropping his first shot of the day following a wayward approach to the ninth.
That left the 25-year-old on 18-under-par, one shot ahead of Stenson and Every, who had bogeyed the first but responded with five birdies in the next nine holes.
Every also birdied the 11th before Stenson made a 3 at the same hole with Every and Hoffman on 18-under. The Ryder Cup man then chipped to three feet at the next, a par 5, to take the lead. Hoffmann bogeyed the same hole to drop two shots behind before also dropping a shot at the 13th as his challenge began to falter.
Every missed from four feet at the par-5 16th for a birdie but was sharing the lead again when Stenson, following a great recovery from a fairway bunker, three-putted the 15th. Agonisingly for him, he repeated the feat at the next to let a golden opportunity to regain the lead slip from his grasp.
To rub salt into his wounds, Every then holed from 16 feet down the slope for a birdie at the last for a closing 66 to finish on 19-under. In doing so, he joined eight-times winner Tiger Woods as the only players to successfully defend the title.
Russell Knox closed with a level-par 72 to finish on seven-under. He was two-under for the day after six holes, having almost holed his third for an eagle at the par-5 sixth, before recovering from back-to-back bogeys with a birdie at the ninth to be out in 35. Coming home, he had a birdie at the 15th in between dropped shots at the 11th and 17th.
It was another solid effort by the Jacksonville-based Scot, but he needed better than a top-30 finish to boost his chances of breaking into the world’s top 50 in time for the last batch of Masters invitations to be handed out in a week’s time.
Martin Laird also signed off with a level-par effort to finish on five-under in the event he won in 2011. The Glaswegian was in the top 10 after his opening 68 but ended up outside the leading 40 after offsetting three birdies with three bogeys in his closing salvo.
Earlier, former Scottish Hydro Challenge winner Brooks Koepka withdrew after 11 holes, citing a dislocated rib in the left side of his back. “It hurts to breathe,” said the American, who now faces a race against time to be fit for The Masters.
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