Rory McIlroy was a winner in the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational, marking the first time the Ulsterman has hoisted a trophy since the day Mr. Palmer died, winning the 2016 Tour Championship and FedEx Cup on the eve of the Ryder Cup.
McIlroy's play inside 150 yards has typically been the culprit, with the four-time major winner struggling with short irons and wedges. However, his putter is as hot-or-cold as it gets in golf, going a long way in determining if McIlroy wins, contends or finishes off the lead pack in any golf tournament.
At Bay Hill last week, he was perfect in every area. He led the field in four major categories -- strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained putting, proximity to the hole and driving distance -- marking the first time since the strokes gained stats were introduced and backfilled through the ShotLink era that a player led a field in all of those stats for a single tournament.
So, of course he won by three shots.
What's most impressive about that stat is McIlroy's dominating putting performance, particularly in the final six holes on Sunday. He gained 9 strokes on the field with his putting, and that's just not something McIlroy has done in his career, save for the 2011 US Open, perhaps.
McIlroy can trace his success this week to a multi-hour conversation with former PGA Tour player and now Fox Sports analyst Brad Faxon. McIlroy sought out Faxon ahead of the tournament, and they delved into what was holding McIlroy back with the putter. For at least one week, Faxon helped McIlroy unlock what the likes of Dave Stockton and Phil Kenyon have been able to do in fits and starts. Faxon urged McIlroy to be more natural in his approach to putting, taking a more aggressive view of the greens and making putts -- something Stockton has suggested in the past.
"He freed up my head more than my stroke," McIlroy said Sunday after his 14th PGA Tour win. "I was sort of felt like maybe complicating things a bit and thinking a little bit too much about it and maybe a little bogged down by technical or mechanical thoughts. You look at so many different, you look at so many guys out here, so many different ways to get the ball in the hole, even going back to the likes of Billy Mayfair or someone that is very unorthodox but still got it done. The objective is to get that ball in the hole and that's it. I think I lost sight of that a little bit. That sounds silly, I guess, but just reminded myself that it doesn't matter how you do it as long as that thing goes in and that's sort of the mindset I had this week."
In other words, stop thinking you're no good at putting and let the fact that you're a four-time major champion -- largely in birdie-fests -- carry you through. It's kind of a spin on Vijay Singh self-hypnotizing in the 2008 FedEx Cup playoffs, convincing himself he was the best putter in the world, though he definitely wasn't.
“I’m trying to get back to feeling how I did as a kid, where your instinct takes over,” McIlroy said, according to Golfweek. “The last time I had freedom like this was probably 2014.”
That was when McIlroy won back-to-back majors with a World Golf Championships title sandwiched in there.
Maybe completing the career Grand Slam at the Masters is the other piece of bread McIlroy needs to make another awe-inspiring snack.