Molinari caps 2-shot win with 45-foot birdie putt

Molinari caps 2-shot win with 45-foot birdie putt

Molinari caps 2-shot win with 45-foot birdie putt

This final-round performance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was particularly uninspiring - his even-par 72 was the highest score of any player inside the top 15 - and so for those waiting for McIlroy to reassert himself as the game's alpha male, well, you'll have to wait another Sunday.

Francesco Molinari had seen so many clutch birdie putts on the 18th green at Bay Hill, majority by Tiger Woods in the final group, usually with Arnold Palmer standing next to the green expecting like everyone else for them go in.

"Tough day, tough to get it close to the hole", said McIlroy, who was attempting to successfully defend a title for the first time in his 14-victory PGA Tour career, which includes four majors.

"It'll be a fun day", Fitzpatrick said. "I've become good friends with him, [I] moved down to Jupiter [Fla.] for the winter months and I've spent a good bit of time with him there". He has got a ton of fans over here. It's different over here, the courses are different, but I've put myself in a good position.

The 31-year-old is looking forward to Sunday, not dwelling on what could've been on Saturday.

His most likely rival for the title is England's Matthew Fitzpatrick, whose 67 gave him the third-round lead at nine under par.

"It's so bunched", McIlroy said. After making the turn, he hit his approach on the 15th hole out of the rough to within two feet for another birdie, then got up-and-down for birdie at the par-five 16th.

"Just played really smart", said Fitzpatrick. I feel pretty comfortable with everything out there. Did the same today. "Greens are firm, hitting a lot of long irons, and it's a true test". The ball landed just right and rolled out to 6 feet behind the flag on the upper right shelf of the green. "It's getting harder out there".

The former world number one, strong off the tee, birdied four of his first six holes and three of his final four as he continued solid play for the season.

"It's a great opportunity tomorrow to do something I've never done before; that's exciting", McIlroy said.

"I'm happy with everything, I just think today I could have played the par-fives better". The greens are so pure. It was his fifth consecutive start with a chance to win, and each time he's come up empty. He was all too proud to roll up his pant legs and show off his new socks, which have an image of Jack Nicklaus making his birdie putt at Augusta National the year he won his sixth Masters.

"I didn't have my best stuff and I sort of grinded away and had a putt on the last, what looked like to be in a play-off, but that was the start of Francesco sort of lighting it up". He finished the round by holing a nine-foot birdie putt at the 18th that briefly left him in sole possession of the lead.

Defending champion McIlroy shot a 66 to surge up the leaderboard at Bay Hill.

"I've done a lot of good things over the last two, three years", Fleetwood said. "Tough to get it close to the hole".

Molinari, who won the British Open, the PGA Tour's Quicken Loans National and the European Tour's BMW PGA Championship and starred in Europe's Ryder Cup victory previous year, isn't normally a strong starter during a season.

Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain, who led after a first-round 66, totaled 70 and is another stroke down in a tie for sixth with Chris Kirk (66), Luke List (68), Charles Howell III (69) and 36-round co-leader Keegan Bradley (75), who made a 34-foot putt on the final hole.

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