McIlroy in positive mood as he returns to scene of his latest victory

Irishman has been in good form this year and is targeting a repeat success at Bay Hill

Rory McIlroy: returns to the scene of last year’s triumph in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Florida. Photograph: Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour

"Yeah, it's been awhile," replied Rory McIlroy on being welcomed back into the winner's circle after his win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill a year ago.

In actual fact, that victory ended an 18-months winless drought on tour and, going on past experiences, the expectation was that the Northern Irishman would kick on and add to his career CV of titles.

But it didn’t pan out that way; and so, a year on, McIlroy returns to Arnie’s course this week as the defending champion and without a win since he lifted the famed trophy and self-preaching a mantra of patience as the key to ending this latest winless run.

McIlroy, it must be said, has been remarkably consistent without actually winning in that spell. Since winning at Bay Hill last year – where he closed with five birdies in his closing six holes to finish three shots clear of Bryson DeChambeau – McIlroy has played 22 tournaments and has racked up 11 top-10s, including three runner-up finishes, in that time.


In fact, McIlroy’s last outing in the WGC-Mexico Championship saw him finish runner-up to Dustin Johnson – who has since returned to number one in the latest world rankings – and profess to having “good vibes” about returning to Bay Hill for the defence of his title.

“My game’s been good, really solid,” observed McIlroy, backed up by a run of 4th-5th-4th-2nd in his four tournament outings so far this season.

McIlroy – one of three Irish players in the field at Bay Hill this week, where Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell are also competing – has to believe that sooner or later, and more likely sooner, he will again be back in the winner's enclosure.

“I’m not frustrated, because it seems like I can only do what I can do and I can only control me . . . . it’s just about staying patient, and hopefully one of these weeks it will fall my way.”

For this upcoming defence, McIlroy opted to skip the Honda Classic (a tournament virtually on his doorstep) but included the one-day Seminole Invitational on Monday as part of his prep work where he lined up alongside Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm in the exclusive annual outing.

Sponsor’s invitation

Lowry – and family – have moved to a Florida base for the next few months. The Offalyman's scheduling changed with his Abu Dhabi Championship win and subsequent upward movement in the world rankings. He earned his place in the field for Bay Hill thanks to his top-50 world ranking and will also be competing in the upcoming Dell-WGC Matchplay Championship, ahead of next month's US Masters.

McDowell – who has slipped to 259th in the latest world rankings – received a sponsor’s invitation to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational as he bids to regain full playing status on the PGA Tour.

While Dustin Johnson has returned to number one in the latest world rankings, this latest stay could be short-lived. Johnson is not playing in Bay Hill but Rose (with a solo top-eight finish) or Brooks Koepka (with a win) could leadfrog him.

The tournament suffered a big blow on Monday when eight-times winner Tiger Woods announced his withdrawal due to a neck strain that has been troubling him in recent weeks.

"Unfortunately due to a neck strain that I've had for a few weeks, I'm forced to withdraw from the API," Woods tweeted.

“I’ve been receiving treatment, but it hasn’t improved enough to play. My lower back is fine, and I have no long-term concerns, and I hope to be ready for The Players.”

On the PGA European Tour, Gavin Moynihan is the lone Irish player in the field at the Qatar Masters in Doha. Moynihan, who won his tour card at qualifying school, had his second top-15 finish of the season in Oman last week and is on a run of tournaments that will see him move on from Qatar to Kenya for next week’s tour stop.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times