ORLANDO, Fla. – Five hundred and 39 days had passed since Rory McIlroy last won, and since golf lost one of its most iconic players.
So much has transpired in McIlroy’s life since then – marriage, injury, adversity – but even now he vividly recalls the awkward end to the 2016 Tour Championship. He had just captured the FedExCup and $11 million bonus, but afterward, in the media scrum, he was asked instead to reflect on the passing earlier that day of Arnold Palmer, at age 87.
“Obviously I had a great win and it was a great day for me, but in the big scheme of things, that didn’t matter,” he said. “The game of golf had lost an icon, a legend, an inspiration to so many of us. I probably wasn’t as ecstatic as maybe I would have been if Arnie hadn’t passed away.”
But there was McIlroy on Sunday at Bay Hill, at Arnie’s Florida home, summoning the kind of charge that would have made the King proud.
With five birdies in his last six holes, he broke away from a stacked leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first victory on Tour in 18 months, since that bittersweet evening at East Lake.
“Kind of ironic,” he said Sunday.
But the connection between McIlroy and Palmer runs deeper than that.
Palmer and McIlroy’s wife, Erica, shared a birthday – Sept. 10.
Palmer wrote letters to McIlroy after each of his many victories.
Palmer had lobbied for years to get McIlroy to play this event, even threatening him. “If he doesn’t come and play Bay Hill,” Palmer said in 2012, “he might have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he’s going to play next.”
McIlroy kept all of his limbs intact but didn’t add the event until 2015, when Palmer’s health was beginning to deteriorate. That week he sat for a two-hour dinner with Palmer in the Bay Hill clubhouse, and the memories still bring a smile to his face.
“I was mesmerized,” McIlroy said.
And entertained, of course.
Palmer ordered fish for dinner. “And I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A.1. Sauce?’” McIlroy said.
“And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ And he said, ‘No, for me!’"
McIlroy chuckled at the exchange, then added somberly: “I was very fortunate to spend that time with him.”
McIlroy has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s close to playing his best golf, but even he was surprised by the drastic turn of events over the past 10 days.
During that 18-month winless drought, he endured an onslaught of questions about his wedge play, his putting, his health and his motivation. Burnt out by the intense spotlight, and needing to rehab a nagging rib injury, he shut it down for four months last fall, a mental and physical reset.
But after an encouraging start to his 2018 campaign in the Middle East, McIlroy was a non-factor in each of his first four Tour starts. That included a missed cut last week in Tampa, where he was admittedly searching.
“The best missed cut I’ve ever had,” he said.
McIlroy grinded all last weekend, stumbling upon a swing thought, a feeling, like he was making a three-quarter swing. Then he met for a few hours Monday in South Florida with former PGA Tour winner and putting savant Brad Faxon. They focused on being more instinctive and reactionary over the ball.
“He just freed me up,” McIlroy said.
Freed up his stroke, which had gotten too rigid.
And freed up his mind, which was bogged down with technical thoughts and self-doubt.
“The objective is to get the ball in the hole,” he said, “and I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”
All McIlroy did at Bay Hill was produce the best putting week of his career.
Starting the final round two shots back of Henrik Stenson, McIlroy made the turn in 33 and then grabbed a share of the lead on the 11th hole.
Tiger Woods was making a run, moving within a shot of the lead, but McIlroy answered with a charge of his own, rattling off four consecutive birdies – a 16-footer on 13, a 21-footer on 14, a chip-in on 15 and a two-putt birdie after a 373-yard drive on 16 – that left Woods and everyone else in the dust.
Then McIlroy finished it off in style, rolling in a 25-footer on the last that was eerily similar to the putt that Woods has holed so many times at his personal playground.
“I know what the putt does,” McIlroy said, “so it was nice to make my own little bit of history.”
Justin Rose has played plenty of meaningful golf with McIlroy over the years, but he’d never seen him roll it like he did Sunday.
“He turned on the burners on the back nine,” he said. “He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”
It’s little wonder McIlroy pulled ahead of a star-studded leaderboard, closing with a bogey-free 64 and winning by three shots at 18-under 270 – he led the field in driving distance, proximity to the hole, scrambling and strokes gained-putting.
“It’s so nice that everything finally came together,” he said.
Over the next two weeks, there figures to be plenty of conversation about whether McIlroy can channel that fearlessness into the major he covets most. The Masters is the only piece missing from a career Grand Slam, and now, thanks to Faxon’s tips, he’s never been in a better position.
But after a turbulent 18 months, McIlroy needed no reminder to savor a victory that felt like a long time coming.
There was a hug for his parents, Gerry and Rosie.
A kiss for his wife, Erica.
A handshake for Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, and then a fitting into the champion’s alpaca cardigan.
The only thing missing was the King himself, waiting atop the hill behind 18 with his huge smile and vice-grip handshake.
“Hopefully he’s up there smiling,” McIlroy said, “and hopefully he’s proud of me with the way I played that back nine.”