Rory McIlroy said he played a “perfect round of golf” after scooping his first victory in 18 months at the Arnold Palmer Invitational – and admitted he had missed the feeling of chasing a win.
The 28-year-old carded a majestic final round of 64 at Bay Hill, reeling off five birdies on the final six holes to finish on 18 under par.
It put him three shots ahead of his nearest rival Bryson DeChambeau, and ensured he will be among the leading contenders at next month’s Masters.
The Northern Irishman told Sky Sports golf: “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.”
A particularly impressive 18th hole saw McIlroy hole a putt from more than 25 feet – prompting him to raise his arms aloft in celebration.
Paying tribute to the tournament’s namesake, he said: “To be able to create my own little piece of history on the 18th green here was pretty special.
“I’m just so happy to be back in the winner’s circle again and win a tournament that has Arnold Palmer’s name on it, someone that means so much to us in the game of golf.”
McIlroy’s last victory came in September 2016 when he won the FedEx Cup. There he had carded a final round of 64 – on the same day that Arnold Palmer died.
In his post-tournament press conference he said: “For me to get my next win here, it means a lot. I’ve had quite a connection with Arnold Palmer.
“He was always so nice to me – I’ve got so many letters from him from wins. 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.
“I tried to be as aggressive as I could and tried to take on shots when I needed to just like he would have. It’s sort of come full-circle since that day in September 2016. I’m just proud to be sitting up here and to have my name on that trophy.”
Jack Nicklaus congratulated McIlroy on Twitter – and said Palmer would have been “very proud”.
He said: “You had been struggling – by your standards – but no longer. You were swinging & playing beautifully this week. And obviously the putter was working very well. I am so pleased to see you win at my old friend @arnoldpalmer’s Bay Hill.”
He added: “AP would’ve been very proud & loved to greet you on 18. I offer an AP thumbs-up & wink on job well done.”
Tiger Woods was briefly in contention for the second successive Sunday after three birdies in the space of four holes immediately after the turn, but his challenge faded with bogeys at the 16th and 17th, and he finished in a share of fifth.
Thomas Bjorn has labeled Rory McIlroy “dangerous”, with the European Ryder Cup captain admitting he’s been buoyed by the world number 11’s impressive form in the early weeks of 2018.
Much has been made of McIlroy’s much-hyped return in the UAE this month, following a three-month injury absence.
The 28-year-old Northern Irishman played at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, and looked fit, healthy and at ease with his swing having curtailed his 2017 season following the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October.
A niggling rib injury was the reason given by the 28-year-old for cutting short his campaign, although ahead of his long-awaited return in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy also revealed he had also been dealing with a minor heart irregularity.
Neither that or an extended break from the game seem to have left him rusty as the four-time major winner finished tied third in the capital, before missing out on a third Dubai title by one stroke as he had to settle for second place at Emirates Golf Club behind China’s Li Haotong.
He really should have lifted that third title as he led by two shots after the 10th hole of the final round on the Majlis course, but Bjorn is hugely encouraged by the early performances of a man who will surely be a key figure in his Ryder Cup squad in September.
“The most encouraging thing I think is that Rory’s in a place where you feel he wants to play a lot of golf. And in that position, he’s a very dangerous as a golfer,” Bjorn told Sport360 at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club in Abu Dhabi, where he was playing in the Gary Player Invitational.
“He hasn’t missed a gym session, he looks great health wise and great technically. He’s enjoying being on the golf course.”
McIlroy hasn’t won a title since the 2016 Tour Championship 16 months ago, while he hasn’t tasted major success since 2014’s PGA Championship.
His win-less 2017 was the first year since turning professional in 2009 he failed to taste victory, but Bjorn believes the County Down native has rediscovered his form and fire.
“I’m sure he will go away from the Middle East with the situations he got himself in, that he maybe wanted a little more,” added the Dane, 46.
“But in general it was two fantastic weeks and it shows a lot about his talent and character that he comes out after such a long layoff and is ready to play with the best in the world.
Rory McIlroy's 2018 so far:— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) 28 January 2018
• 2 events
• 2 top 3s
• 8 rounds
• 8 under par rounds
• 44 birdies
• 8 bogeys
• 67.0 average pic.twitter.com/2aF8ldhy8V
“It’s hard not to predict great things for him this year, especially because there’s a smile on his face, a willingness to play golf and wanting to be there. When Rory McIlroy’s in a good place with everything, he’s a very difficult competitor to deal with.
“I think we make a lot out of Rory and we talk a lot about him. He’s a wonderful golfer and he obviously struggled with his injuries last year, and always feeling like he was probably a little bit behind when he got to tournaments.
“He showed up last week, I had a good chat with him at the DP World Tour Championship, I saw him there and I saw him last week; and to see him fit and healthy and desperate to play golf, that’s how you want to see him.”
Ask any top sportsman what it is like watching from the sidelines and the response will nearly always be the same: frustrating, unsatisfying and quite frankly, monotonous.
But a period of time away can be beneficial and for Rory McIlroy, having spent three months off the golf circuit towards the end of his 10th year as a professional, it has been a chance to ‘recalibrate and reset’.
A nagging back injury meant the four-time major winner had to shut 2017 down from October, costing him a spot at Dubai’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship – a short-term investment that he believes will ensure he stays at the top for years to come.
“I struggled with an injury pretty much all year last year and I just needed to take a little bit of time out to rehab and let that heal to make sure that I’m 100 per cent for next year,” he told Sport360°.
“It’s actually been nice to get away from tournament golf. I’ve been a professional for ten years, so just to take a few months off and recalibrate everything and reset to get ready for the next few years was nice.
“I allowed myself that little bit of a break to feel rejuvenated and ready to go again next year. I’m feeling good and I’m really excited. I haven’t been this excited about a golf season for a while, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
That excitement goes a long way to explaining why McIlroy will play in eight tournaments before he goes in search of his maiden Masters victory in early April at Augusta – more than he has ever done in his career up to this point.
“I feel like I haven’t played that much over the past 18 months,” said McIlroy. “I’ve been pretty limited with my schedule the last couple of years.
“That has been good because it has kept me fresh for certain parts of the year, but at the same time – I just want to play.
“I’m just excited to get back out on the course. This is the time for me, as it’s not as if I have any other commitments or anything else going on in my life. I just want to get out there, play golf tournaments and get back in the thick of things.”
Time away from the course appears to have done McIlroy the world of good in more ways than one, as he’s been able to take stock and assess the small details that may go a long way to helping him add to those four majors.
“I guess when you’re not injured you take your health for granted a little bit and when you’re struggling with your body, all you want is to be healthy and do whatever you can,” he added.
“I’ve taken that side of things a little more seriously, by really watching what I’m doing in terms of diet and making sure that I’m warming up properly and doing everything I need to get myself 100 per cent healthy and in shape.
Looking forward to a busy start to my 2018 season. Some great new events on my schedule https://t.co/LeFJyFUFf5
— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) December 8, 2017
“I’ve just been a little more diligent with that side of things, but in terms of the golf, I don’t feel like I need to do anything differently. I feel like I’ve done a good bit of work in the last few weeks on my swing and on my game and I feel like I’m ready to go next year.”
McIlroy’s second event of 2018 will see him head to Dubai to compete in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, and the Dubai resident has certainly made the course at Emirates Golf Club feel like home, having won in 2009 and 2015.
“I’ve won there twice and I love the golf course at the Emirates. I played in the tournament a couple of times as an amateur as well, and it is a great place to start the year,” McIlroy added.
“Dubai is perfect at the time of year that we’re playing. They are able to assemble a really good field, so it’s great competition at the start of the year to see where your game matches up with the other guys.”
Before he looks to make it a hat-trick of victories, McIlroy will team up with his close friend and superstar music artist Niall Horan for the Wednesday ProAm. The two have struck up somewhat of an unlikely friendship in recent years, culminating in plenty of time on the golf course together.
“We probably haven’t got out to play as much as we’d like recently. He has just finished a very successful first tour and releasing his album and that’s obviously done really, really well,” said McIlroy of Horan’s recent successes.
“I’m in London next week so we’re going to try and catch up and play a round of golf – if the weather permits – so we’ll see how that goes. It’s a bit nicer to play in Dubai, you don’t really have to worry about the weather.
“But we’re going to try and catch up and play. Maybe I’ll give him a few pointers so he can work on it over Christmas and New Year so he’s ready to go in Dubai.”
McIlroy and Horan are offering one lucky fan the chance to join their team for the ProAm on Wednesday January 24. The winner will also enjoy a seven-night stay in Dubai, including flights, plus two tickets to each day of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. For more information on how to enter head to www.omegadubaidesertclassic.com/win.