Rory McIlroy is the greatest headliner in golf. That does not mean he is the most consistent golfer or even the best player in the game today, but when you're looking for compelling drama that leaves your pulse pumping and sweat seeping from your temples, there is nowhere else to look but Rory.
McIlroy took the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational by three strokes on Sunday over Bryson DeChambeau, which doesn't sound like great theater until you look a little closer at exactly what happened at Bay Hill.
The last month of professional golf has been monumental. Some combination of Tiger Woods elevating his game, Phil Mickelson's first win since 2013, an unusually deep set of fields and the natural angst that comes with the runway to Augusta National has created an outrageously good five-week run that culminated on Sunday in Orlando, Florida.
With Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, McIlroy, Woods and DeChambeau chopping it up on Saturday and Sunday, this past weekend had the look of a low-grade major championship with much more at stake than $1.6 million and a three year exemption.
Sunday was a microcosm of the level of golf we've seen of late. A premium course played host to some of the best in the game with NBC cutting to one hall of famer after another shaping shots and pouring in putts. There were innumerable, "Wait, is this really happening with all of these guys right now?!" looks. So many, "We're really going to get Rory-Tiger-Rose-Stenson as a Masters appetizer?!" thoughts.
Sunday's Round 4 had the feel of something special for Tiger following last week's near-miss. Out in 34 with birdies at Nos. 10, 12 and 13, Woods climbed to within one of McIlroy and friends at the top of the leaderboard. When Tiger starts stalking like this, it almost doesn't matter what everyone else is doing because he makes you feel like he controls not only his destiny but theirs as well. He didn't though -- not on Sunday -- instead playing the last three holes in 3 over to finish T5.
But as Woods finished up his third top-15 finish in a row, the tournament was just getting started. Behind him, McIlroy made five birdies in his last six holes for an 8-under 64 to finish at 18 under overall. A 90-minute stretch that saw Tiger pull one so far left on No. 16 that Hillary Clinton would have had trouble finding it with McIlroy distributing red numbers in his wake. The most astounding part of the event for me was this: Woods trailed by one with five to go. He lost by eight.
McIlroy's putting was talked about all week, and it should have been. He gained 10 strokes on the field, his best performance ever on the PGA Tour. But on Sunday, McIlroy looked like vintage Woods. Every single approach shot was hole high. He missed like two shots on the back nine, one of which he promptly chipped in for birdie. He finished first in the field in proximity to the hole with an average of 24 feet and gave himself 10 (!) looks on Sunday of 20 feet or better on his approach shots.
It wasn't only that he scored but also how he scored. When he gets all wound up like a jack-in-the-box ready to come undone, something special always seems on the precipice and something savory always goes down. Sometimes that's a holed iron shot and $10 million putt like we saw the last time he touched a W in September 2016. Sometimes it's a foursome playing the last hole together like we saw the last time he won a major in August 2014.
Watching a great golfer like McIlroy is no different than experiencing a world-class actor. Even seemingly straightforward shows have a subtle undercurrent of virtuoso. This is no secret in golf circles. Platitudes like "The One" and "The Gift" are bandied about with McIlroy like they're pleasantries. There is no discretion when it comes to praise for McIlroy because there has never needed to be. He encompasses worlds. He runs deep enough to be filled up and remains sturdy enough to bear the burden.
The one problem? He hadn't won in a while.
Even though his winning percentage on the PGA Tour is equivalent to or better than all the non-Tiger greats of the last handful of decades, it had been nearly 15 full months since McIlroy last cashed a winner's check. He has been held down by injuries, on- and off-the-course changes, and a short game that has been, uh, paltry. A missed cut at the Valspar Championship last week wasn't a low, but it was certainly the latest (and maybe most prominent) in a series of head-scratchers.
"It's such a fine line out here, and I might have sounded crazy the last few weeks when I was telling everyone it actually feels pretty close and I'm not that far away and I'm putting up 72s and 73s," said McIlroy. "All of a sudden it all clicks into place and [you] end up winning a golf tournament by three shots and shooting 8 under on the last day. So it's fine lines out here. I think you have to play the game to really appreciate that. It's not as black and white as some people make it out to be."
A look back at McIlroy's career is a reminder that his victories often come after runs of drought. He missed two of four cuts before running off the 2016 Deutsche Bank Championship and Tour Championship in the next three weeks. He missed a cut at the 2015 Honda Classic before seven straight top 10s, including two wins. He had just one top 10 the last six months of 2013 before rolling of an historically great 2014 that included two majors and a WGC consecutively.
But back to 2018 and this tournament. McIlroy played the front nine in 33 and put himself in the middle of it. Following what had to be a disheartening par on No. 12 on Sunday, a hole he eagled on Saturday, McIlroy made a 17-footer for birdie on No. 13 and a 21-footer for birdie on No. 14. He wasn't even close to done. A chip-in on No. 15 for his third in a row preceded a 373-yard drive on the par-5 16th.
At this point, the tournament felt inevitably over. With Woods in the house ahead of him but well behind him on the leaderboard, McIlroy was being halfheartedly chased by playing partner Rose as well as Stenson and DeChambeau in the final pairing one hole behind him.
But as McIlroy tapped in for par on No. 17, something curious happened. DeChambeau poured in a long eagle on No. 16 and was suddenly within one.
The inevitability flipped, and McIlroy needed a good closing kick. Thankfully for him, the well runs deep, and poor Bryson never saw it coming. Rory stared down that DeChambeau score change on the leaderboard as he walked up 18 with one thing on his mind. He strutted, yes, because he always struts, but his eyes ran a little wild as they searched for an equilibrium. Something or someone to eviscerate. It had been a while since his last kill, and he appeared feverish until the end.
"Obviously Rory played incredible golf, and it was fun, yeah, great to see world class players do that," said playing partner Rose. "It was great to see him make putts -- well 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."
There's not a physics book on the planet that could explain to DeChambeau, who was on the tee at No. 17, with how much velocity his world was about to be upended. One final 25-foot for birdie for Rory and a right hook to The Artist's soul, and that was it. Plumes of smoke and the ashes of a course that was lain to waste by the preeminent arsonist in golf. DeChambeau parred No. 17 and tried to figure out the air density on 18 on his approach shot, which needed to be holed. Trick question: There is no air density on Planet Rory. He lost by three.
"I thought 15 under would for sure win today," said DeChambeau, who finished at 15 under and got flattened. "Rory obviously played some incredible golf. I don't know what he did on the last nine, but it was deep. I know that."
It was, as most of McIlroy's victories have been, dramatic and thrilling and made for TV. A 64 at Palmer's place to bookend the 64 he shot on the day of Palmer's death in 2016. A 31 on the back.and onto the next one.
Rory shot a final-round 64 to win the TOUR Championship on the day that Mr. Palmer died.— Sean Martin (@PGATOURSMartin) March 18, 2018
What did Rory shoot today? 64.
It was a reminder that even though there might be more talent and there might be a golfer in this generation that ends up ahead of him historically, there is nobody who puts on an event like him. Those bows and wags at Hazeltine in 2016 were not an outlier. They were part of the training. They're in the bag of tricks for the ultimate entertainer. The swag knows no boundaries.
"I've always believed in myself, and I know that me being 100 percent healthy is good enough to not just win on the PGA Tour but win a lot," said McIlroy.
"I guess that's what kept me going. I wanted to get back to 100 percent fitness, which I have. That allows me to practice as much as I want, go about my business, do everything that I need to do to feel 100 percent prepared to play golf tournaments. So I never lost belief. I know that I've got a gift for this game and I know that if I put the time in I can make a lot of it. I guess that's what's kept me going."
When nines reek of chaos as they did deep in the afternoon in Orlando on Sunday with so many major champions atop the leaderboard, Rory McIlroy is often there as an epicenter. The one others look to for reorientation. The cream rises to Rory. This is not preternatural. He learned, as many his age did growing up, from the greatest leading man ever, who also happened to be the guy out in front of him on Sunday, chasing from a position of weakness.
So while Tiger Woods appeared poised for a punctuation mark in his pre-Masters prep, it was Rory McIlroy, twirler of every note and deliverer of every soliloquy, who ran him off the stage with a breathtaking, showstopping performance. This tour is a traveling theatrical endeavor that pushes a variety of acts into the spotlight.
Some we talk about for years. Some we forget by Monday morning. Rory's shows always resonate. When it's his time to headline, there is no better thespian in sport.