ORLANDO: Rory McIlroy staged a spectacular back-nine charge to claim a three-shot victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday, collecting his first PGA Tour win since 2016 and putting himself among the favourites for the US Masters.
Two shots behind overnight leader Henrik Stenson when the day began, McIlroy overhauled the Swede with a brilliant error-free final round of eight-under 64.
The Northern Irishman hit five birdies over his last six holes, including a nerve-wracking clutch 25-foot birdie at the 18th to clinch his first PGA Tour title since the 2016 Tour Championships.
“I kept saying the last few weeks, I wasn’t that far away and it just takes something to click into place,” McIlroy said in a greenside interview.
“Something clicked into place with my game and obviously something clicked into place in my putting and this is the result.
“It’s so nice to see everything come together finally.”
McIlroy arrived in Orlando with plenty of concern over the state of his game having missed the cut in two of his four PGA Tour starts this year with his best result a tie for 20th.
After Sunday’s round, though, the Northern Irishman was right back in the conversation about who will win next month’s US Masters at Augusta, where he will have another chance to complete his collection of all four major titles.
McIlroy strung together four consistent subpar rounds for an 18-under 270 total and a three-shot victory over American Bryson DeChambeau (68).
Englishman Justin Rose (67) finished alone in third while Stenson (71) faded to fourth.
Tiger Woods, an eight-time winner at Bay Hill, had a 69 to cap another solid comeback effort and finished in a tie for fifth.
After a tense afternoon at Bay Hill Golf Club, McIlroy had looked poised for an uneventful finish when he stepped onto the 18th tee with a three-shot lead.
But before McIlroy could get to his second shot, DeChambeau turned up the pressure with an eagle at 16 to trim the advantage to one.
McIlroy, however, had the answer and rolled in a 25-footer for birdie at the last, triggering a roar from the massive gallery and a huge fist pump from the Northern Irishman.
“I’ve seen Tiger making this one enough times, so I was just trying to emulate that,” said McIlroy.
“Just to be able to create my own little bit of history at the 18th green here is pretty special and I’m just really proud of myself to have hung in there over the last few months.”
“The last time I won a PGA Tour event was the day Mr Palmer passed away and so it’s a little bit ironic I come here and win.”
McIlroy’s dramatics overshadowed another patented charge from Woods, who had put himself within one shot of the lead with four to play.
Decked out in his familiar final-round red, Woods mixed six birdies with a single bogey through his opening 13 holes but watched his charge fizzle with back-to-back bogeys at 16 and 17.
While it was a disappointing end to a promising week, the 14-time major winner will take away plenty of positives as he looks ahead to next month’s US Masters.
Still in the early stages of his comeback from spinal fusion surgery and years of back issues, Woods result offered more evidence that he is getting close to his old form coming on the heels of a runner-up finish last Sunday at the Valspar.
“I felt pretty good out there, I hit the ball probably a little bit better than I did last week,” said Woods.
“This golf course affords the opportunity to go ahead and stretch it out a little bit, the greens were really smooth and really fast, and I felt like I really putted well the entire week.”