Bay Hill, site of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, is widely considered the toughest non-major course on the PGA Tour schedule. Thus, it should come as no surprise that scores can fluctuate wildly there. Case in point, Jon Rahm – shot an opening 65 and appeared on his way to cruising to yet another victory. But then he posted consecutive rounds of 76 before finishing with 72, good for a share of 39th place.
That brings us to Rory McIlroy. An opening 73 – eight strokes off Rahm’s number – portended a long weekend. But just one bogey over the next 36 holes and rounds of 69 and 68 placed him in contention.
Sunday got off to a rocky start for McIlroy, who bogeyed the first two holes. He got those back with birdies at the fourth and fifth holes, and then gave one back at the seventh. Six strokes off the lead at this point, he hardly seemed like a contender. But birdies at four of the next five holes, while rivals were backing up, actually boosted him into a share of the lead, unbeknownst to him.
McIlroy’s pursuit of the title went sideways at the par-3 14th hole, where his tee shot landed in a bunker. He two-putted for bogey. Then, he stumbled to another bogey at 15, where his tee shot landed in thick rough left of the fairway. His next shot traveled a scant 125 yards to rough right of the fairway. Another bogey ensued.
Yet, that was hardly the end of McIlroy. He got a birdie at 16 before playing 17 and 18 to par. Then, tied for the clubhouse lead with Harris English, all he could do was wait to see what would happen with Kurt Kitayama, the overnight leader, looking for his first PGA Tour win, who still had the lead despite a double bogey at the ninth.
Kitayama, needing par at 18 for the outright victory, steadied his nerves and kept the ball in the fairway. On the green in two, his birdie putt hung on the lip of the cup. He finished that off in due course and had the victory, avoiding a playoff.
“If I look back on today, the one thing I’ll rue is the tee shot on 14,” McIlroy said. “I honestly thought I was still, like, one or two behind the lead. As I was walking to the 14th green, I looked behind me at the scoreboard, and I was leading by one. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have tried to play the shot that I played on 14, which was unfortunate.
“But it was a good week. I saw some positive signs. Game’s rounding into form for the bulk of the season. So, even though I didn’t get the win, I’m still pretty happy with how everything went this week
Padraig Harrington got off to a rough start with a double bogey at the first hole on Thursday. But he cleared the cut line by four strokes and finished joint-53rd, two strokes over par and 11 behind Kitayama. He was actually much better situated than his final position would suggest. Four bogeys over the back nine on Sunday had him backpedaling.
As for Shane Lowry and Seamus Power, they’re not likely to find many positives from their four rounds at Bay Hill. The tournament fell apart for Lowry on Saturday, when he shot 80, thanks to two triple bogeys. Otherwise, he shot 72, 70 and 71 to finish 67th.
Power opened with 72 and saw his scores increase by multiples of two thereafter – 74, 76 and 78. His was the high 72-hole score.
The action moves northward to the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. this week. McIlroy is part of a power grouping with Rahm and Scottie Scheffler on Thursday and Friday. Lowry and Power will try to make amends amidst less scrutiny.