McIroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational

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If the events at this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by Mastercard are any indication, the 2018 Masters Tournament could be one for the ages.

Though they go about it in a plethora of ways, the great players always seem to find their games in the weeks leading up to the season’s first major. The tournaments in the weeks before the Masters serve as tuneups for the best players on the PGA TOUR, most of whom needn’t worry about qualifying to play at Augusta National. The high drama at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this year was a rare treat with so many familiar names atop the leaderboard.

When the scrum was decided and the dust had settled, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy stood victorious.

That McIlroy has found something in his game is clear. Tee to green, McIlroy has always been among the very best on the PGA TOUR, but the flat stick has been his undoing as of late. Things were different on Sunday at Bay Hill.

The putts were dropping in from everywhere. McIlroy’s 2.5 strokes gained putting bettered the field and sealed the win. If he continues to putt the way he did on Sunday, he should be a threat to win his fifth major tournament – and his first green jacket – at Augusta this year.

When he started the final round with pars on the first five holes, McIlroy barely had then-leader Henrik Stenson within sight. But Stenson, who recorded a 64 of his own in the first round to take command of the prestigious tournament, could not keep up the pace. A pair of 71s on the weekend opened the door to the field, and McIlroy stormed through.

“I just really tried to stay patient out there,” said McIlroy of the early string of pars that had him trailing Stenson by four shots. “After that, I just played a perfect round of golf… I just executed shots the way I wanted to when I needed to.”

McIlroy also made headlines early in the tournament, thanks not to his play, but to his comments regarding the crowds that follow Tiger Woods during rounds. The throngs of patrons can cause a noticeable ruckus as they jockey for position to view each of Woods’ shots, regardless of his position on the leaderboard.

The commotion is an obvious distraction for players accustomed to stillness and silence as they stand over shots, and McIlroy is not alone in his distaste for the drunken, ill-timed shouts of “Get in the hole!” Spectators, announcers and journalists all wince during those displays of buffoonery. Imagine what it’s like for the players.

Woods had his galleries oohing and awing all week at the Arnold Palmer, as he continued his incremental yet impressive return to competition. He played easy golf, and easily played well enough to keep himself in contention at yet another tournament.

Tiger had the golf world on the edge of its collective seat with what was building up to be another of his classic Sunday charges in the fourth round. In the end, he let his competitors off the hook with a left-of-left drive on the 16th hole that found the back yard of one of the homes lining Bay Hill’s lush fairways. The out-of-bounds tee shot ended Woods’ chances, but it didn’t dampen his spirit or the enthusiasm of his most ardent fans.

“I was caught. I didn’t decide what I was going to do,” he said of the fateful swing on 16 following Sunday’s round. “I didn’t commit to it. (I) bailed out on it and hit a bad shot, and that’s on me for not committing.”

That ownership of his mistake is refreshing to many in golf circles. For years, a younger Woods would throw mini tantrums for shots only marginally off line. One bad hole would seep into the next, as frustration poured over into outright anger. But, Woods accepted his OB drive with acceptable disappointment. He teed up another ball, and continued play without a fuss. Perhaps this is the wiser, calmer Tiger many have been hoping to see as he ages.

If Woods is regaining his old form en route to the Masters, McIlroy is reigniting. McIlroy’s victory at the Arnold Palmer was his first win of any kind since he bested Americans Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell in a playoff at the 2016 TOUR Championship. Moore tied with Woods for 5th at Bay Hill, while Chappell’s 8-under total was good for a six-way tie for 7th place.

Chappell and Moore are both already qualified to play in the 2018 Masters, as are Woods, McIlroy and Stenson. The field thus far is set at 83 players, and the chances to cinch a spot this year are swirling down the drain for players still unqualified.

The Woods-McIlroy finish at Bay Hill hinted at a rivalry that has rarely materialized between the two. This year’s Masters now holds the promise of a glimpse at what we may have missed with Woods ailing and McIlroy flailing in recent TOUR seasons. And, with Phil Mickelson joining those two active legends in a return to form, the intrigue builds and hopes rise for a dramatic week in Augusta.