ORLANDO – Maybe it really is the Magic Kingdom.
The Happiest Place on Earth may well turn out to be Rory McIlroy’s remedy to right his disenchanting winless ways once again.
Last year, a visit to Walt Disney World Resort came two days before he ended an 18-month drought at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
This year, McIlroy played his best golf of the week in Saturday’s third round of Arnie’s annual shindig at Bay Hill after he and his wife, Erica, visited Mickey Mouse and his fellow Disney characters 24 hours earlier.
“Exactly what I needed to do,” McIlroy said after a 6-under-par 66 placed him on the first page of the leaderboard, one shot behind leader Matthew Fitzpatrick, and in position to win for the first time since winning here 12 months ago.
The four-time major winner was talking about his golf, but he could have used the same words about his trip to the Magic Kingdom, where his favorite ride was the Twilight Tower Zone of Terror, which features a 130-foot drop. While he had many ups and a few downs – he three-putted for par on two par-5s – McIlroy got the better of grueling Bay Hill and is in position to win a tournament in back-to-back years for the first time in his career.
“If you come to Orlando and you don’t go to the parks you’re sort of missing out on something,” McIlroy said. “And Erica told me last year the only reason I won this event is because we went to the Magic Kingdom on Friday. So I thought, let’s go back to Disney and have a good time again.”
He’s got some other mojo going, as well. Just as he did last year, McIlroy is trending upward as his performance is improving each day. Last year, a superb 67 in the third round got him in position to make a run, and on Sunday, he closed with five birdies in his last six holes to win by three shots over Bryson DeChambeau.
On Saturday, he closed with birdies on three of his last four holes, an exquisite stretch that included short birdies on 15 and 18 after hitting pitching wedge for his approaches, a sporty up-and-down birdie on the par-5 16th and a clutch par save on 17 when he blasted out of a bunker to 9 feet.
“I was a little scrappy Thursday and Friday, and definitely felt a lot better today,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully I can continue and bring that into tomorrow as well.”
As he has for months, McIlroy is preaching patience this week. He’s been stuck in a Groundhog Day-type of time loop, where he wakes up on Sunday on the first page of the leaderboard and goes to bed Sunday night without a trophy.
In his four previous starts this year, the world’s No. 6 has finished fourth, fifth, fourth and second. Since his win at Bay Hill last year, he’s had 11 top-10s in 22 worldwide starts.
And on Sunday, for the ninth time since the start of the 2018 season, McIlroy will be in the final group. He is 0-for-8 in that scenario but is far from concerned.
“The consistency in my game, consistency in my mindset, my thinking, not getting ahead of myself, staying patient, I think by doing that I’ll find myself in this position more often,” McIlroy said. “And any time you’ve had success on a course before, that gives you confidence. I’ve been trending in the right direction. I’ve come off the back of four top-5’s to start the year.
“I feel pretty comfortable with everything out there. The more times I put myself in this position the more I’m going to become comfortable there and sooner or later it’s going to happen.”
Having Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom in his corner won’t hurt, either.