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An exciting finish to the Arnold Palmer Invitational was just what was needed to pay hommage to the great man himself and several contenders emerged along the back nine at Bay Hill on Sunday
A 52-foot eagle putt on the 16th hole that would surely have made the tournament’s longtime host proud saw Marc Leishman of Australia take the lead with just two holes to play.
Leishman’s wayward drive on the 18th hole left the tournament in balance but the Australian played a great recovery shot from the rough to leave himself a reasonably straight forward up and down for par to remain atop the leader-board. Leishman left his chip shot a little short and ended up having to stare down a 4-foot par putt to post a three-under-par 69 for a 72-hole aggregate of 11-under 277 and a one-stroke victory at Bay Hill over Kevin Kisner and Charley Hoffman. Leishman’s par secured his come-from-behind win, his second PGA Tour victory, and also qualified him for the Masters in April.
Leishman’s victory was the type of wild finish that Palmer, who died in September at age 87, would have enjoyed, as a practitioner of a go-for-broke style characterized by playing out of the woods and ditches with equal abandon.
For most of the final round on Sunday, all eyes were on Rory McIlroy and whether he could catch the 54-hole leaders Charley Hoffman and Kevin Kisner. McIlroy tried his hardest to pull off a Palmer-like charge. Starting the weekend 11 strokes off the pace, he caught the leaders with a birdie at 16 that gave him a share of the lead at 10 under. Unfortunately, three putts from 40 feet on the final hole and a closing round of 69, saw the Irishman tie fourth-place with Tyrrell Hatton.
In an exciting final hour four players had at least a share of the lead but Leishman was the only one who didn’t blink. Kisner looked to be the player likeliest to win and grab his second tour title as he had built a three-stroke lead at 13 under, but bogeys at Nos. 8, 12 and 14 dropped him to 10 under, and he ultimately closed with a 73 to equal Hoffman, his 54-hole co-leader.
“I had it right there in the palm of my hand to win,” Kisner said, “and I didn’t get it done.”
After the round Leishman described his victory as an honor to win at Bay Hill in the first tournament without Arnold Palmer. Instead of a blue blazer, the winner this year donned a red cardigan sweater that Palmer favored and instead of seeing Palmer, Leishman at least was able to share it with his family.
His two sons, ages 5 and 3, ran out to the 18th green when he finished while his wife watched happily from the fringe of the green. It was something that the family could only dream of two years ago as Audrey Leishman nearly died when she suffered from toxic shock syndrome, causing Leishman to hastily leave the Masters.
Before the tournament Leishman was No. 62 in the world with only two weeks left to secure his spot at Augusta. Now he’s going back.
“Mr. Palmer was an awesome guy who I was lucky enough to meet a few times,” Leishman said. “To honor him was huge. And it was the first time I won a tournament with my family here. It’s all come together.”
Leishman finished at 11-under 277 and also earned a three-year exemption on the PGA TOUR.
“Around here, things can change so quick,” Leishman added. “You don’t have to hit that bad of a shot to make bogeys out there. You just have to stay right in it and not think what the end result is. I was able to do that. I holed some good putts there on the last few holes. It was a nice day, obviously the putter was there with me all week.”