Rory McIlroy resumed his late Sunday supporting role as Open champion, Francesco Molinari stormed to victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
Molinari, 36 muscled his way from five shots back in posting a sizzling bogey-free eight-under par 64 for a two-shot success at 12-under par and a third PGA Tour victory.
After a Palmer-like charge through the field, the Italian golfing stallion finished his round just over 90-minutes before being fitted with the winning Palmer-like red cardigan before Sheffield’s Matthew Fitzpatrick locked-in his 2020 PGA Tour card in finishing second with a 71 at 10-under par.
McIlroy ended his defence an after-thought, managing just two birdies in a score of 72 for a distant share of sixth place at eight-under par.
“It was a tough day, tough to get it close to the hole,” reflected McIlroy. “I feel like I really didn’t play that badly. I missed a couple of shots but I felt like I was hitting good shots to 30 feet all day and it’s hard to sort of shoot a score. My mindset going out was play that way, take care of the par-5s, I thought go out there, do that, shoot 68.
“So, if I had played the par-5s a little better it would have been a different story.
“But I’m playing well. I would much rather be putting myself in position to have a chance to win. I’m playing good golf, it doesn’t matter if I’m playing that golf on Thursday, Friday, Saturday — yeah, my Sundays haven’t been what I would have liked, but I’m putting myself in that position, so good golf is good golf, I keep saying that.
“I shot 72 on Thursday here, felt like I didn’t play that good but then I felt like I played much better today shooting the same score.
“So, it doesn’t matter what day it is and it doesn’t matter if you’re final group, fifth group, it’s golf at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter.”
McIlroy had burst into a hopeful first successful career defence thanks to a Friday visit to the Magic Kingdom at nearby Disney World before coming out to shoot a day three 66. But McIlroy’s final round was akin to a Chamber of Horrors.
He headed into the round trailing a shot behind Fitzpatrick and while he scrambled well to save par at the second, he drew level at nine-under with his 2016 Ryder Cup team-mate in holing a 27-foot birdied gem at the third.
If you needed any signs that it might not be McIlroy’s day, the first was at the par-5 fourth hole when his birdie putt from six-foot lipped-out. To compound the pain, Fitzpatrick rolled-in a nine-foot birdie to be the first in the field to get to 10-under.
Then to add insult to growing injury, McIlroy’s 18-foot birdie at the next performed a ‘360’ in also lipping out.
There was an incident on the sixth fairway with McIlroy singled out for an unsavoury comment by a clearly beer-fuelled spectator before putting his second in a greenside bunker and walking off with a two-putt bogey. McIlroy had eagled the par-5 sixth on day two and grabbed a birdie on day three.
Up front, there was now five players at nine-under including Molinari who would then birdie his next hole, the 12th and move to join Fitzpatrick on 10-under par.
The ‘McIlroy Is Not Going to Win’ writing was starting to appear boldly on the Bay Hill wall.
There was further confirmation the victory carpet was being slowly pulled out from under McIlroy’s feet when he paid the price for missing a second par-3 green-in-regulation that led to a first dropped shot at the eighth.
Fitzpatrick made the turn in his 46th PGA Tour event, now two shots clear of McIlroy who was back to sharing third but with seven others at eight-under.
Both McIlroy and Fitzpatrick were on the 12th tee when there was the ‘Roar of the Week’ from the 18th after Molinari drained a monster 43-footer for birdie to forge then two shots clear of Fitzpatrick.
While Molinari was fist-pumping, McIlroy’s mood continued to be downbeat having parred 10 and 11 before sending his chip shot from the right side of the 12th green some 13-feet past for a two-putt par.
McIlroy parred holes 10 to 14 but dropped a second shot of his round at 15 that ruled out any hope of an unlikely comeback before a second birdie of the day at the 16th was followed by pars at 17 and 18.
A check of the ‘basic’ stats shows McIlroy hit 12 of 14 Bay Hill fairway but again he struggled with the putter, officially recording 32 putts while there was one or two other putts from just off the green.
But where Rory struggled, Molinari strived and with just 24 putts in his round, including 10 one-putts, the Italian proved untouchable.
And there was none better than Molinari’s 23-foot birdie gem at the last, a putt we’ve seen Tiger Woods hole on a number of occasions in winning no fewer than eight Palmer-hosted events.
“It’s a pretty iconic putt and I’m pretty sure I’m the first guy to make it with the flag in though, so that’s the real difference,” said Molinari smiling.
“I was just trying to lag it close to the hole and it came out on a great line and maybe a little firmer than I wanted, but the line was just right and incredible to see it going in.
“I’ve seen so many putts on TV like that on 18, including Tiger, and to do it yourself it’s really amazing.
“So, to have a round like this today and to be handed a second trophy with Arnold Palmer’s name on is very special.
“After also being in the winning Ryder Cup team and becoming European No. 1 it is great to win very early in a new season. Myself and my team worked very hard over the Christmas period so this win is hopefully a sign of better things to come this year.”
The Open Champion’s 10th career victory will lift Molinari back to No. 7 in the world.
Meanwhile, Ulsterman Graeme McDowell got his last round off to a horror start, dropping six shots in his five holes in doubling the second before making a total mess of the par-5 fourth hole in taking a triple-bogey ‘8’.
GMac then bogeyed the next before birdieing three of his next six holes, only to bogey 13 and send a ball into the drink at 16 en route to a horror of horrors 78 for a two-over tally.
McDowell had been three shots off the lead on day one and boosting hopes of securing one of three tee-times into July’s Open Championship.
In the end it was Sungjae Im, Keith Mitchell and Sung Kang that secured their places in The 148th Open after qualifying at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.
It was the first time that the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard has featured in The Open Qualifying Series, which gives golfers around the world opportunities to book their place at Royal Portrush from 14-21 July.