From five back the holder of the Claret Jug delivered an outstanding 64 to take the Arnold Palmer Invitational by two shots, at 12 under par, from Matt Fitzpatrick. But after a 25-foot birdie putt on the third hole to briefly tie for the lead, McIlroy played the next 12 holes with two bogeys and 10 pars.
When McIlroy is playing his best, as he is right now, he's arguably the toughest player in the world to beat. It became obvious as Molinari's back nine unfolded early on Sunday afternoon that something special was taking place.
Beware the lurking Italian: Francesco Molinari is making a rather useful habit of this. 13 and 14, a chip-in birdie on 15, a birdie on 16 and, for good measure, a closing birdie on 18. The 44-foot close jumped him up to second on the day in putting and fourth on the week.
"I mean it's nice to bounce back but when you're coming down the stretch it's obviously a lot of disappointment there as well", Fleetwood admitted.
It was the same score McIlroy shot at this tournament a year ago to win - a victory that happens to be his last anywhere in the world.
Other than reigning U.S. Open and PGA Championship victor Brooks Koepka, no golfer on the planet has been hotter than Molinari since last summer. The Quicken Loans National on the PGA Tour. Glory at last summer's Open Championship arrived from a Sunday starting position of three adrift of the lead. Improbably, at the age of 36, Molinari has picked up distance off the tee and made himself a threat in any tournament he enters.
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"THE PLAYERS next week is one of those weeks that you circle in the calendar at the beginning of the year", Molinari said.
Meeting with the media and donned in an Arnold Palmer red alpaca cardigan, Molinari toasted Palmer with one of the legend's favourite drinks, Ketel One vodka, on the rocks, with a twist of lemon. Fleetwood's third round 76 while playing in the final pairing with Keegan Bradley sunk his chances to cruise to his first PGA Tour victory, but he was still terrific throughout the week. "Today someone was saying it's a bit like a U.S. Open, which I could totally see". A bogey on the par-four eighth stained his scorecard and put him one stroke behind Fitzpatrick in solo second place.
For whatever reason, McIlroy is not getting it done in final rounds, Sunday the most glaring example.
But having started the day just two shots outside the top-10, he got off to a horrific start and carded a six-over-par 78 to finish 54th on two-over, mixing three birdies with two bogeys, two double-bogeys and a triple-bogey. It wasn't even a roller coaster of a 72. Molinari's was longer than anything Woods ever made, from a slightly different angle. He played bogey-free on the final day at Carnoustie for his first major. Interestingly he tied another pair of Oklahoma State Cowboys on the opposite end of the career spectrum.
Sitting in the red cardigan awarded to the victor and $1.638 million richer, Molinari had nothing to prove. McIlroy and last week's victor Keith Mitchell highlighted a group of four at eight under.