Date: March 19, 2018
Author: Martin Blake

Tiger charges, McIlroy breaks drought

Tiger Woods made a run then faltered, but Rory McIlroy’s resurgence was the bigger story of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill today.

As a couple of Australians also made strong runs, Woods threatened to win for a third tournament in a row before a pulled drive at the par-five 16th hole that flew out of bounds cost him a chance.

The former world No. 1 was within a shot of the lead held by major winners McIlroy and Henrik Stenson at the time, at five-under having the round of the day.

By the time he scrambled a bogey six and McIlroy holed two consecutive birdie putts, he was quickly four back and Woods then exacerbated his troubles by failing to get up-and-down for par from the greenside trap at the 17th.

In the end Woods finished with a nice par-save at the 18th for a 69 to finish tied-fifth at 10-under par, having started the day five shots back.

He has finished 12th, second and fifth in the past three tournaments, emphasising that his comeback is well and truly alive. His 12 straight par-or-better rounds tells everyone that.

But equally his reluctance to hit the driver – and his inability to hit it straight when he does take the big dog out – are issues for him that existed before his back problems and various other troubles sent him into a spiral a few years ago.

Woods, 42, waved to the appreciative crowd afterward and again seemed ecstatic to be back playing and contending again.

Afterward he said he was caught between methodologies at the 16th – whether to bomb the ball over the trouble or cut it into the fairway. “I didn’t commit to it … and baled out, hit a bad shot and that’s on me for not committing,’’ he said.

Overall, he was happy. “I felt pretty good out there. I hit the ball probably a little better than I did last week. This golf courses affords the opportunity to go ahead and stretch it out a bit, the greens were really firm and fast and I felt like I really putted well this week. I hit a lot of good putts.’’

His world ranking will be back close to 100 this week but he is not high enough to make the field for the World Golf Championship Dell Matchplay tournament, so he will next tee it up at Augusta National on April 5 with the eyes of the world upon him. Wood has won the Masters four times but not since 2005.

Of the Australians, Marc Leishman (67) and Jason Day (67) both had fine finishing rounds to continue their preparation for the Masters. Leishman ended up tied-seventh and Day just outside the top 20. Adam Scott finished tied-41st.

McIlroy closed with a 64 with no bogeys and nine birdies, putting the exclamation mark upon it with an eight-metre bomb for birdie and a huge fist pump at the 72nd. His win was his first since the Tour Championship in Atlanta in September, 2016, a remarkable statistic for a four-time major winner and world No. 1.

The Northern Irishman has been in a slump with just one win over the 2016-17 calendar years, but his putter suddenly ran hot at Bay Hill today, highlighted by four consecutive birdies when the tournament went on the line at the 13th, 14th, 15th     and 16th  – the third of those a bomb from 14 metres. He had just 24 putts for the day.

It was vintage McIlroy, hitting a drive almost 340 metres at the par-five 16th so that he was wedging to the green. It has been a long time coming, but it looked great on the eve of the Masters – the only one of the four majors that he has not collected yet.

He raced out to a three-shot lead but Bryson DeChambeau made an eagle at the 16th to pull back within one as McIlroy went down the 18th fairway. True to his day, McIlroy hit a pure iron shot to birdie range and rolled in his eighth birdie in the last 13 holes, and his fifth in the last six holes.

Once again, he was an unstoppable force.

“I’ve seen Tiger make this putt enough times to know what it does,’’ said McIlroy of his finishing touch. “I just wanted to try and emulate that. Didn’t quite give it the hat toss I was thinking about, but just to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.

“I’m just proud of myself to have hung in there over the past 18 months or nearly a year with injury and everything else that’s happened.’’