Tuesday 24 April 2018

McIlroy ends 18-month title drought with back-nine blitz

A victorious Rory McIlroy celebrates after making his birdie putt on the 18th green at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Photo: Getty Images
A victorious Rory McIlroy celebrates after making his birdie putt on the 18th green at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Photo: Getty Images

Brian Keogh

Rory McIlroy did his best Tiger Woods impression and ended his 18-month winless drought with a thrilling three-shot victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

After a month of mediocre form raised questions about his preparedness for the Masters in 17 days, the Co Down man rolled in a Woods-like 25-footer at the 18th for his fifth birdie in the last six holes, an eight-under 64 and his 22nd career title by three shots from Bryson DeChambeau on 18-under-par.

"It was awesome," said McIlroy, whose last win in the 2016 Tour Championship came on the day Arnold Palmer passed away.

"To feel the buzz of being somewhere around the lead going into the back nine and reeling off those four birdies in a row - I missed it. I really have missed it. To play the golf I played today under that pressure, I am really proud of myself and just so happy to get the win."

There was a Major-like frisson in the air all day as a resurgent Woods launched a final-round charge to get to within one of the lead with five holes to play.

Just 10 months after his spinal fusion, a fairy-tale ninth win seemed possible for the eight-time winner of the event.

But while he drove out of bounds and bogeyed the 16th, dropping another shot at the 17th to shoot a 69 and a share of fifth on 10-under par, he looks like a man with the tools to challenge for a 15th Major win at Augusta National.

If he's to win there, Woods (42) will surely have to deal with comeback kid McIlroy (28), who appears to have discovered the secret of good putting after yet another long sojourn in the desert.

Back now in the world's top 10, he went into the final round two shots adrift of Henrik Stenson after an impressive 67 on Saturday and left a slow start behind him by making three birdies in four holes from the sixth to tie for the lead.

Woods created an electric atmosphere as he made six birdies and a bogey in a stunning 10-hole, mid-round stretch before his wayward drive left the stage to McIlroy, who made four birdies in a row from the 13th to etch his name on the trophy.

Having missed his second cut in four starts at the Valspar Championship the previous week, making that early season brilliance he showed in Abu Dhabi and Dubai seem like a desert mirage, he had a putting "lesson" with the eight-time PGA Tour winner Brad Faxon (56) at the Bear's Club last weekend and arrived in Bay Hill a new man.

Sting

A change to the 34.5 inch putter that brought him four Major wins allowed him to get comfortable over the ball and he went from the lower echelons of the strokes-gained putting charts last week to first in Orlando, knocking in five birdie putts outside 10 feet last night.

Having failed to get a putt to drop early on, he was off from the moment he made an 11-footer at the 556-yard sixth. Another quickly followed from 12 feet at the par-three seventh before a 354-yard drive took all the sting out of the ninth and he took advantage, holing confidently from 11 feet.

Stenson had hardly put a foot wrong over the opening holes, rolling in 12-footers for birdies at the first and fourth.

But he three-putted the eighth to allow McIlroy to draw level and a fascinating back nine battle began with Woods the early protagonist.

Five adrift overnight, the 14-time Major winner was three-under for the day and three behind as the leaders made the turn.

But he then birdied the 12th and 13th to within one and raise hopes of a dramatic comeback victory before quickly dashing them by driving out of bounds at the 16th. Instead of Tiger, it was McIlroy who gobbled up the opposition, fist-pumping as he holed a 15-footer for a three at the 13th to lead outright before knocking in a 21-footer at the 14th to go two clear.

Stenson, Bryson DeChambeau got back to with one, but it was McIlroy who donned the Tiger-suit, chipping in for a third successive birdie at the 15th, before adding another at the 16th where a 361-yard drive set up an easy two-putt. DeChambeau eagled the 16th to get back to within one but McIlroy closed him out with that closing birdie.

As for Graeme McDowell, he started with two birdies in his first four and finished with three in a row.

But he signed for a one-over 73 to finished tied for 22nd on five-under, dropping six shots in a nightmare 11-hole stretch in the middle of his round.

On the Sunshine Tour, Team Ireland's Neil O'Briain (31) won the Bobby Locke Trophy awarded to the Rookie of the Year despite having to withdraw from the season-ending Tour Championship at halfway with a back and hip injury.

Irish Independent

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