ORLANDO, Fla. – It was eerily quiet on the 17th tee late Sunday at Bay Hill, the tournament all but over. Francesco Molinari had signed for a sterling 64 nearly an hour and a half earlier, leaving the next 10 pairings to finish up their week’s work with virtually no chance of victory. Among that group, again, was Rory McIlroy, and the frustration began to show as he slogged toward the clubhouse.
“Slow today?” Matt Fitzpatrick asked, breaking the silence as they waited on 17 tee.
“Slow every day,” McIlroy said, flicking his club at the turf. “Just horrendous. Absolute disgrace.”
McIlroy had every reason to be annoyed, of course, and not just because of the brutal pace of play. He’s played in the final group nine times over the past 15 months, and each time he’s watched someone else hoist the trophy. It was his fifth consecutive start with a chance to win, and each time he’s come up empty. He’s playing the most consistently excellent golf of his career, and he has just one title in the past 30 months.
It doesn’t compute.
This final-round performance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was particularly uninspiring – his even-par 72 was the highest score of any player inside the top 15 – and so for those waiting for McIlroy to reassert himself as the game’s alpha male, well, you’ll have to wait another Sunday.
“Tough day,” he said afterward, and then he tried to spin his tie for sixth as positively as he could. That he needed to shoot 67 on a firm course to overtake Molinari. That he played better Sunday than he did Thursday and carded the same score. That at least he again put himself in position to win.
McIlroy’s optimism echoed what he’d said earlier in the week, that he was trying to “get away from being results-oriented and be more focused on the process and on the present and just trying to be better.”
But as well-rounded as McIlroy’s game has become – he’s been top 8 in strokes gained: tee to green each of the past three seasons and is on pace for the best putting season of his career – he’s gone Charmin-soft when it matters most. His Sunday scoring average over his past seven final-group appearances is 72. That alone would be one of the worst on Tour.
It’s the biggest reason why he’s been unable to replicate the multiple-win seasons of his glory years. Sure, he isn’t as volatile as he was earlier in his career, when he’d win and miss the cut in equal measure, but he doesn’t experience the soaring highs, either.
“I’m more comfortable playing the sort of golf I’m playing right now where I’m consistent and just waiting for any given week where it’s my turn to win,” he said.
It’s true, he’s been overshadowed by a few stellar Sunday performances over the past few months.
Xander Schauffele’s 62 at Kapalua.
Dustin Johnson’s 66 in Mexico.
And now Molinari’s 64 at Arnie’s Place.
But it used to be McIlroy who threw down the hammer. Seven of his 13 stroke-play wins have been from behind – that's tied for the most on Tour since 2010. Instead, his final day at Bay Hill followed a familiar pattern of missed opportunities that even his playing partner noticed.
“I’m sure he’ll be disappointed with today,” Fitzpatrick said. “I can think of a few occasions he could have been three or four shots better, in my opinion.”
Look no further than the par 5s, which McIlroy played just 1 under despite leading the field in driving distance and ranking second in strokes gained: off the tee.
It was a collection of squandered chances that he’ll no doubt replay on his drive to TPC Sawgrass:
• On 4, he had only a 5-iron into the green and blew a 7-footer for birdie.
• On 6, he had a 3-iron into the green, missed in the wrong spot and made par.
• On 12, he had a 4-iron into the green, thought he’d struck a great shot that went unrewarded and then hit a poor chip to 15 feet.
Even his birdie on 16 was disappointing: He bludgeoned a 347-yard drive and hit pitching wedge to 11 feet. His putt for eagle never had a chance, leading to the quiet moment of frustration on 17 and the deflating finish in front of fans who had seen the winner come through 90 minutes earlier.
“I feel like I really didn’t play that badly,” he said. “If I took care of the par 5s a little better, it might have been a different story.”
It’s the first time in McIlroy’s career that he’s strung together five consecutive top-6 finishes, so what began to irritate him afterward were the questions that suggested that there’s some sort of mental hurdle he has to overcome.
The first four questions in his pre-tournament news conference were about the “frustration” of coming so close so often, and not surprisingly that was a popular line of questioning again after the event.
Asked about another so-so Sunday, he responded: “Look, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Thursday or Friday or Saturday or Sunday. I shot 72 on Thursday here, and I felt like I played much better [today] than the 72 I shot on Thursday.”
“But the final-group part ...,” a writer attempted to follow up.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re final group, or fifth group,” McIlroy interjected. “It’s golf at the end of the day.”
Another writer tried to rephrase the question, this time more delicately: “So the frustration of not being able to get it done, is that unfair in some ways because you keep giving yourself that chance?”
“I’m playing good golf,” he said, “and it doesn’t matter if I’m playing that golf on Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Yeah, my Sundays haven’t been what I would have liked, but I’m putting myself in that position, so good golf is good golf.”
It’s just not winning golf.
Not yet, anyway.