The loudest roars at Bay Hill were for Tiger Woods. The last ones were for Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy left some indelible images of his own Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a back-nine charge that would have made the King proud, and a final putt on the 18th green that a delirious gallery had seen for so many years from Woods.
McIlroy ran off five birdies over his last six holes and closed with an 8-under 64 for a three-shot victory. He won for the first time since the Tour Championship on Sept. 25, 2016, the day Palmer died.
“I wish I walked up that hill and got a handshake from him,” McIlroy said. “But I’m so happy to put my name on that trophy.”
Bay Hill was rocking all afternoon, mostly for that red shirt. Woods, who started the final round five shot behind, made three birdies in a four-hole stretch to start the back nine and was within shot of the lead as everyone behind him on the course appeared to stall.
One shot changed everything. Woods couldn’t commit to a swing with his driver on the par-5 16th hole and sent it far and left — way left — over a fence and out-of-bounds, sending him to a bogey when he couldn’t afford anything less than birdie.
He finished bogey-bogey-par for a 3-under 69 and tumbled down the leaderboard into a tie for fifth.
That’s about when McIlroy pulled away.
Until then, five players were separated by one shot. Before long, McIlroy was leaving everyone in his wake.
He made a 15-foot birdie putt on the 13th to take the lead over hard-luck Henrik Stenson, and then rolled one in from 20 feet on the next hole. If that wasn’t enough, McIlroy chipped in from 40 feet on the 15th hole, and then pounded a 375-yard drive on the 16th that set up a two-putt birdie.
Bryson DeChambeau made the last run at him, gouging a shot out of the rough, over the water and onto the green at No. 16 and pumping his fist when the eagle putt caught enough of the cup to drop in. That put him one shot behind.
McIlroy, however, wasn’t finished. He left his putt about 25 feet above the hole on No. 18, roughly the same spot from where Woods made birdie putts to win in 2001, 2008 and 2009. Woods slammed his cap to the ground in 2008, not realizing he had done that.
McIlroy buried the putt, raised both arms in the air and turned to slam his fist as the grandstands erupted with cheers.
“I’ve seen Tiger make that enough times to know what it does,” McIlroy said. “So I just wanted to try and emulate that. Didn’t quite give it the hat toss — I was thinking about doing it. But just to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.”
That gave him a two-shot lead, and he was a winner for the 22nd time worldwide when DeChambeau failed to hole out from the fairway for eagle. DeChambeau made bogey from the bunker on the 18th for a 68 and finished alone in second.
Justin Rose lingered all day but was never a threat over the final hour, instead watching McIlroy put on a stunning charge.
“Rory played incredible golf and it was fun — great to see world class players do that,” Rose said after a 67. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me. But when he is making putts, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”
Stenson lost a third chance in four years to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He led by as many as two shots on the front nine before the putts stopped falling. Two shots behind playing the 16th, Stenson three-putted for par and bogeyed the final hole for a 71. He finished fourth.
Woods tied for fifth with Ryan Moore (71), and now heads to the Masters with plenty of momentum — just not a victory.
He finished one shot behind last week at Innisbrook. He was one-shot behind with three holes to play at Bay Hill, though it would have needed more than just a few birdies the way McIlroy played.
Even so, Woods finished among the top 12 in all three events in the Florida Swing. His next stop is the Masters, where he will be a favorite to win his fifth green jacket. And to think that just over six months ago, Woods hadn’t been cleared by his doctors to hit balls after fusion surgery on his lower back, his fourth back surgery dating to the spring of 2014.
“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” he said.
McIlroy was relieved for other reasons. He went through an injury-plagued 2017 and failed to win anywhere in the world. He was coming off a missed cut a week ago in the Valspar Championship. And now he’s a winner again, with the Masters looming. McIlroy needs only a green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam.