With eight birdies in his final 13 holes and five in his last six, McIlroy fired a tournament-low 8-under 64 on the Championship Course at Bay Hill Club & Lodge for a three-stroke victory over Bryson DeChambeau.
The win on Sunday had great meaning for the four-time major winner from Northern Ireland, who had grown close to the tournament host since he first competed in Arnie’s event in 2015. McIlroy finished third last year. This time he won the red cardigan sweater with an 18-under 270 total.
In a sad coincidence, McIlroy’s last win was the 2016 Tour Championship. That was on Sept. 25, the day Palmer passed away. The news took the shine off that win and the FedExCup title that came with it.
“It was bittersweet,” McIlory said. “Obviously, I had a great win, and it was a great day for me, but in the overall picture of the big scheme of things that didn't matter. The game of golf had lost an icon, a legend, an inspiration to so many of us, and yeah, I probably wasn't as ecstatic as maybe I would have been if Arnie hadn't had passed away.”
Slowed by a nagging rib injury and a struggles with his putting, McIlroy in 2017 endured his first winless season since 2008. And he did it by overcoming a two-stroke deficit to DeChambeau and Henrik Stenson at the start of the day, and by outplaying the likes of Justin Rose and a rejuvenated Tiger Woods as well.
“He always makes it look easy when he is playing well,” said England’s Justin Rose, who joined McIlroy in Sunday’s penultimate group and watched his Ryder Cup teammate pour nearly everything into the cup to outgun a star-studded leaderboard, one of the best this year on the PGA Tour.
McIlroy, 28, won his 14th PGA Tour title after his previous four starts this year were largely a bust with two missed cuts and only two rounds under par. In the modern era, only Woods and Phil Mickelson had as many wins before the age of 30.
McIlroy, who led the field in putting after getting some help from former PGA Tour player Brad Faxon back home in Jupiter, Fla., had nothing going for him on Sunday until he birdied the par-5 sixth, and then he seemingly couldn’t miss, catching Stenson by the ninth hole at 13 under with a 10-footer for birdie.
He took command with four birdies in a row starting at the 13th, the coup de grace coming when he chipped in from 42 feet after missing the green to the left on the par-4 15th, correcting his only error coming home. McIlroy jumped up and spun around when the ball dove in. He exploded into his next tee ball, delivering it 373 yards down the fairway to set up an easy two-putt to close out the run at 16.
DeChambeau, who closed with a 68, made it interesting when he cut the lead to a stroke with a must-have eagle at the 16th from 15 feet. But McIlroy ended any thoughts he had of catching him when his 24-footer at the last gave him an insurance birdie.
Rose finished third at 274 after a 67, while Stenson posted his fourth top-5 finish in five years after a 71 left him fourth with a 275 total. Woods ended up T-5 with Ryan Moore.
The only disappointment to the day was not being able to shake Palmer’s hand. McIlroy made his first appearance at Bay Hill in 2015, and he hasn’t missed since. He quickly grew close to the legendary player and tournament host, and Sunday’s performance turned out to be an homage to him.
“I've had quite a connection with Arnold Palmer over the past few years and I've been very fortunate to spend some time with him here, and he was always so nice to me,” McIlroy said. “I've got so many letters from him from wins and all sorts of stuff. I wish he would have been at the top of the hill to shake my hand when I came off the 18th green there, but hopefully he's proud of me with the way I played that back nine and 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 sort of 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.
The Palmer charge. It still works.