Dubai: Rory McIlroy burst back into contention for next month’s Masters by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday, but other re-emerging greats Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are also firing just in time for Augusta.
The 28-year-old Northern Irishman holed five birdies on his final six holes to card a closing 64 at Bay Hill to finish 18 under par, three shots clear of Bryson DeChambeau, for his first win since the Tour Championship on September 25, 2016.
That last victory was incidentally the day Arnold Palmer died, so it seemed only fitting that McIlroy should be the one to end his dry run at an event in honour of the man he so admired.
“I wish he would have been at the top of the hill to shake my hand when I came off the 18th green, but hopefully he is proud of me with the way I played that back nine,” he said.
“I played a perfect round of golf. It was awesome 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’ve missed it, I really have missed it, and to play the sort of golf that I played today under that pressure. I’m really proud of myself and just so happy to win,” added McIlroy, who was sidelined for much of last year with injury.
Attentions will now turn to the Masters just over a fortnight away from April 5-8, which is the only Major event still missing from McIlroy’s resume and the one he needs to become only the sixth player to complete a career Grand Slam, after; Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player.
“I kept saying I didn’t need a win going into Augusta to feel like I had a chance, I just wanted to see signs of good golf. And thankfully, I’ve been able to get both today,” said the Ulsterman.
Threats from the men with experience are suddenly emerging at every turn for McIlroy however. Not only has Mickelson — who boasts three Masters wins — just got his first victory since 2013 in Mexico this month. But Woods — who has four Masters wins — is also lurking with his second top five finish in as many events, after his latest comeback from injury.
Woods missed a putt for a share of the lead on 15 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational before back-to-back bogeys on 16 and 17 saw him fall back in perhaps the closest he’s been to ending his five-year win drought.
Henrik Stenson, winner of the 2016 Open Championship and a perennial mention for the Masters, also came close, missing his third chance to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in four years.
The Swede led by two strokes on the front nine before the putts stopped falling and was two behind on 16 before bogeying the final hole to finish fourth.
That’s before we even go into 2013 US Open champion Justin Rose, a two-time runner-up at Augusta (including in a play-off last year to Sergio Garcia), who finished third, four strokes behind Rory in Florida. All these returns to form will make the upcoming Masters one of the most hotly anticipated Majors in recent memory.