Beware the lurking Italian: Francesco Molinari is making a rather useful habit of this. Glory at last summer’s Open Championship arrived from a Sunday starting position of three adrift of the lead. If the scale of that achievement cannot be surpassed in a standard PGA Tour event, Molinari at least overturned an even bigger deficit at Bay Hill on Sunday. From five back the holder of the Claret Jug delivered an outstanding 64 to take the Arnold Palmer Invitational by two shots, at 12 under par, from Matt Fitzpatrick.
Marquee moments need not arrive at a tournament’s conclusion. Molinari, 11 groups from the tail of the field, holed out from 44ft on the 72nd green. What followed was a rare, if totally understandable, display of emotion from the 36-year-old. Molinari has recently changed his equipment and had overcome a serious bout of flu to record his fourth worldwide win in 10 months. When his imperious display at the Ryder Cup is also factored in, one wonders what Molinari might do for his next trick.
“A few years ago I probably wasn’t confident or comfortable enough being out there with some of the guys,” he said. “As a junior golfer I wasn’t the best in Italy.” Now? He is one of the 10 best in the world.
Fitzpatrick battled admirably to a 71, the former US Amateur winner earning his finest finish in the United States as a professional. As the sun began to set, the Sheffield man was the only player who could halt another Molinari victory procession, a task in which there was no shame in falling short. “I feel like I should have won the way I played, so I am disappointed I lost by two,” said Fitzpatrick.
Rory McIlroy’s quest for a Disney double ended in circumstances that may be worryingly familiar for a player of such immense talent. McIlroy has now featured in nine final Sunday groups since the start of 2018 – he won from behind here a year ago – without closing out for victory. There are various circumstances attached to that, of course, but this was a peculiarly flat McIlroy Sunday. His putter turned colder than a December morning in Siberia.
The Northern Irishman birdied the 3rd to tie the lead briefly. A miss from five feet at the next hole rather set the tone for what was to come. McIlroy did not pick up another shot until the 16th – by which point he was one over for his round – and closed with a 72 for a share of sixth at minus eight. Matt Wallace, Sung Kang and Keith Mitchell matched the McIlroy tally.
“I was hitting good shots to 30 feet all day and it’s hard to sort of shoot a score,” said McIlroy. “I hit fairways, I hit solid shots into greens, it’s just asking a lot of yourself to try and hole 25-footers all day to make birdies.”
Tommy Fleetwood, to his immense credit after tumbling to a 76 on day three, improved by eight shots. His nine-under total was sufficient for a share of third alongside Rafa Cabrera Bello and Sungjae Im.
“I mean it’s nice to bounce back but when you’re coming down the stretch it’s obviously a lot of disappointment there as well,” Fleetwood admitted. “I just got on the wrong side of the golf course yesterday. It played like a US Open for us in the afternoon, it was so difficult. And when you’re finding it tough those days can easily just get away from you a little bit.
“So it’s strange that the best result of the year and the week that I feel like I’ve sort of built some momentum and felt really comfortable on the golf course, kind of ends with a little bit of disappointment.”
The tournament within the tournament related to three places for this year’s Open Championship. Im, Mitchell and Kang won that race. Molinari, meanwhile, was sampling champagne once more. The man with a perfume sponsorship logo on his golf bag knows nothing beats the sweet smell of success.