ORLANDO, Fla. – Arnold Palmer was cool.
He was a champion, an icon and the kind of man who tried to leave every room better than it was when he entered. But above all else, The King was cool. From the cardigan sweaters he wore better than anyone else to play that was best described as heroically reckless, Palmer made a stuffy game stylish.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then count Rory McIlroy’s ode to The King this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational as a testament to that ageless style.
On Day 1 at Bay Hill, McIlroy arrived wearing a pair of yellow pants and a dark blue golf shirt, a classy nod to Palmer, who was once photographed by Golf Digest wearing the same ensemble.
“The King wore it best,” McIlroy conceded.
The King also would have approved.
Bay Hill wasn’t always on McIlroy’s dance card. He skipped the event the first five years of his career on the PGA Tour. But when he finally made the trip to Arnie’s Place in 2015, he was treated to a signature Palmer moment, when the host invited him to dinner.
And what does McIlroy recall from that meal?
“I knew that he liked A-1 sauce on his fish, which was quite strange,” McIlroy recalled. “I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A-1 sauce?’ And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ He said, ‘No, for me.’”
McIlroy has always played well at Bay Hill, which makes sense given the long layout’s demand on ball striking. His victory last year was the logical progression following top-30 finishes in his first three trips to the City Beautiful.
McIlroy doesn’t play Arnie’s swashbuckling brand of golf, opting instead for the kind of precision and power that can be unrivaled on a given day, but there are plenty of similarities between the two.
Both came from working-class roots, with a keen sense of how people should be treated and a moral compass that always points to parents who instilled an unquestionable line between right and wrong. While there will only be one King, McIlroy also enjoys a degree of whatever magic made Palmer such a beloved figure.
Like Palmer, McIlroy also seems to have an acute awareness of the moment.
Entering the first round at Bay Hill among the week’s favorites following top-5 finishes in each of first four starts in 2019, McIlroy rolled with the yellow and blue.
Big moment, big statement.
On Sunday, McIlroy will have another chance to fill the space thanks to a third-round 66.
Going back to the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, McIlroy has had his chances to add to his portfolio, most notably at the Genesis Open and WGC-Mexico Championship, but each time he came up short.
“I've come off the back of four top-5s to start the year. I feel pretty comfortable with everything out there, and just the more times I put myself in this position, the more I'm going to become comfortable there, and sooner or later it's going to happen,” he said.
He’ll begin the final period trailing Matthew Fitzpatrick by a stroke, and McIlroy’s Sunday statistics haven’t exactly been flawless.
Since the beginning of 2018, McIlroy set out on a championship Sunday in the final group eight times; he didn’t win any of those events. It’s a baffling for a player of McIlroy's stature, who at times can seem much more imposing than his 5-foot-10 frame.
Despite his recent record, you have to like his chances against Fitzpatrick, who was bogey-free on Saturday but has never won in the United States. A staple on the European Tour with five victories, the Englishman knows what to expect on Sunday with McIlroy. The two were paired for the final round last year at the Abu Dhabi Golf HSBC Championship, and Fitzpatrick has set up shop in South Florida near McIlroy.
“There's no point in trying to hit it past him or trying to do anything like Rory. We both got strengths and both got weaknesses and that's why we practice to try and get better,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think the big thing for me is just sticking to my own game tomorrow.”
McIlroy lamented last year following his victory at Bay Hill that the only thing that could have made the moment better was if Palmer – who died in September 2016 on the same day McIlroy won that season’s Tour Championship – was there to present him with the champion’s cardigan.
In the media center after his victory, McIlroy raised this vodka toast with The King's favorite, Ketel One:
Like most players of this generation, McIlroy marvels at Palmer’s career, but it’s the way he lived his life that truly makes him a compelling figure.
“I guess my thing with Arnold was, he always, no matter who he talked to, whether it was me or a guy in the cart barn or a person in the media, he always looked you in the eye and he always made you feel as if you were the only person in the world at that time,” McIlroy said. “I think that's something that was really cool.”
Yep, Arnold Palmer was really cool. And winning his event for the second consecutive year would also be really cool.