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Why another Sunday stumble at API could indicate another big year for Rory McIlroy

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy failed to break par on Sunday and finished four strokes behind the winner at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

“I'm playing well," the Northern Irishman said. "I'm getting myself into contention every week [and hopefully can] continue to do that going into next week. That's the great thing about golf, you don't have to wait too long to get back on the horse."

In full transparency, that was all 12 months ago at Arnie's Place, when McIlroy closed in 72 to tie for sixth place and end up four strokes behind Francesco Molinari.

A year later, though, both McIlroy's finish and sentiment remained the same. This time, McIlroy struggled to a final-round 76 to tie for fifth, four shots back of champion Tyrrell Hatton.

“There's a lot of similarities between the start of this year and the start of last year. A lot of chances not converting, but knowing that the game's pretty much there,” McIlroy said. “Just keep knocking on the door and go up to [The Players] tomorrow and work on a few things. And, yeah, get back at it again.”

Same concept, slightly adjusted cliché.

The start to McIlroy’s year goes well beyond “similar.” It’s more like a sequel. To start 2019, he finished T-4, T-5, T-4, second and T-6. So far in ’20, he’s finished T-3, T-5, fifth and now T-5.

Hatton (74) outlasts field to win at Bay Hill

With a Sunday 74 and seven straight pars to close the final round, Tyrrell Hatton outlasted the field to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The frustration Sunday at Bay Hill was evident. An approach that airmailed the green at the par-5 sixth hole started moving things in the wrong direction for McIlroy, who had tied the lead with birdie at No. 5. Another double bogey at the ninth left McIlroy five strokes off the lead on a course that wasn’t giving up birdies.

“It's aggravating but at the same time I just have to keep telling myself the game's there,” he said. “I didn't have my best stuff again over the weekend, but neither did anyone in these really tough conditions.”

Those who chose to be prisoners of the moment will point to a final-round scoring average of 71.5 so far in 2020 and a particularly curious finish at the Genesis Invitational after McIlroy started the final round tied for the lead. He was one of just three players Sunday at Riviera in the top 10 to post an over-par round (73).

Attention spans being what they are, there will be a forceful minority who see McIlroy’s current run and will proclaim the sky is falling and declaring that the world No. 1 can’t convert enough of those precious Sunday chances.

He’s become accustomed to unrealistic expectations and brushed away the thought following the final round.

“I think my win percentage on Tour is like 10 percent, and I think that's pretty high for anyone not being Tiger Woods,” said McIlroy, who became just the third player (along with Woods and Greg Norman) to hold the No. 1 ranking for a total of 100 weeks. “I've had chances and I wish I had converted one of them over the last few weeks, but I'm still in good form. I'm playing some good golf.”

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Full-field scores | Full coverage

Just as it’s impossible to ignore the similarities between McIlroy’s seasons, it’s also worth acknowledging that when he headed north from Orlando last year he was bound for one of the year’s most dominant performances at The Players Championship. It set the stage for a three-win season, a FedExCup title and the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award.

When Rory talks of accumulated consistency and the importance of patience, it’s often mistaken for some sort of weakness, as if honest assessment has no place in a competitive landscape.

Defeat is never easy, particularly for a player as driven as McIlroy, and it will probably be a long drive to TPC Sawgrass on Monday morning, but Rory has proven that patience and consistency can be a powerful combination.