ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The connection Rory McIlroy had with Arnold Palmer was strong even before he delivered a Sunday charge that would have made the King proud.
McIlroy first played the Arnold Palmer Invitational three years ago, and Palmer teared up at dinner when he asked McIlroy if there was anything he needed and received this reply: “Mr. Palmer, thanks to you, I have everything I could ever need in my life.”
McIlroy’s last victory was at the Tour Championship on Sept. 25, 2016, the day Palmer died.
Sunday was special for so many reasons.
Tiger Woods brought Bay Hill to life when he pulled within one shot of the lead, only for McIlroy to respond to the endless cheers and chants for Woods by running off five birdies over the last six holes to pull away. McIlroy closed with a 64, just like the last time he won. And he ended his longest drought in eight years by winning on the course and tournament that Palmer built.
The only thing missing was having the King around to celebrate.
“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.”
It really was the perfect ending.
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.
The charge was vintage Palmer — birdie putts on the 13th and 14th, a chip-in from 40 feet on the 15th, a 375-yard drive on the 16th that left him a sand wedge into the par 5 for a two-putt birdie.