ORLANDO — Winning golf is a beautiful thing to behold. The feeling of satisfaction, the enjoyment of a job well done, the exhilaration one feels when having supreme control of your golf ball and hitting shot after shot with supreme confidence and impeccable precision.
Yeah, well, none of that really happened Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The winner, England’s Tyrrell Hatton, toured wind-swept Bay Hill Club with all the joy of a man who’d just endured a habanero enema. And at the end he appeared to exude what you’d suspect would be a similar expression of relief. You know, glad to get THAT over with.
Hatton, who has a reputation as a rather volatile sort, could smile, ever so slightly, after he two-putted for par on the famed 18th hole of Bay Hill’s Championship Course, which enabled him to hold off Marc Leishman by a stroke for his first PGA Tour title. A check for $1.674 million was just the analgesic to soothe a chapped disposition after Hatton cobbled together a final-round 74 in some of the most confounding conditions in the event’s history.
“It’s an incredible feeling to win on the PGA Tour and to do it at such an iconic venue,” said Hatton, 28, a four-time winner on the European Tour, who completed 72 holes in four-under 284, the highest winning score in tournament history. “I’ve grown up watching this event as a kid on TV, and to be sitting here next to the trophy now is an amazing feeling and very thankful I managed to hold on at the end.”
He looked a bit wrung out. And he was the winner, which not only gave him a healthy paycheck, but also a three-year PGA Tour exemption. It was almost too much to process for a guy who once lived in nearby Lake Nona and was trying to scratch out a living on the Hooters Winter Series.
“The setup was extremely tough,” he said judiciously. “And I said yesterday the hardest thing for me will be to manage myself. And over the course of this week I feel like I did a decent job of that.”
In contrast to the white-knuckle experience of the final 48 hours, the last two winners at Bay Hill, Francesco Molinari and Rory McIlroy, got to bathe in the glow of final-round 64s, charges that would have put a smile on Arnie’s face. Hatton probably more enjoyed sitting on his couch drinking red wine and playing Xbox, his preferred distractions while recovering from wrist surgery last November.
Not since Martin Laird shot 75 in 2011 had the winner at Bay Hill closed with a round over par. The field scoring average of 74.402 ranked third highest in tournament history. That’s what happens when one guy shoots in the 60s over the last 36 holes. Take a bow Matthew Fitzpatrick for that final-round 69.
Four players finished in red figures. Only in 1980 were there fewer, when two men enjoyed that distinction. That year was rainy, windy and featured temperatures starting in the teens. This week the menu included gusting winds, thick rough and greens less forgiving than shoppers in the hand sanitizer aisle at Winn-Dixie.
After Hatton, the fifth straight non-American to triumph, and Leishman, the 2017 winner who closed with a 73, came Sungjae Im, who captured the equally chaotic Honda Classic the week prior. Im also shot a final-round 73 to end up two back at 286. Bryson DeChambeau pumped a fist emphatically after he birdied on the 72nd hole for a 71 and 287 total. He deserved to celebrate; he birdied the home hole each of the final two rounds—and there were only five there all weekend.
That was it for guys who finished in the red at Bay Hill. Everyone else, well, just saw red. Veteran Davis Love III admitted on Sunday that things were so tough over the weekend that the thought of shooting 100 was a legitimate fear.
“I'm all about having a fair test,” DeChambeau said. “How do you test … let’s just take this for example. Who is the smartest person in the world? How do you make a test for that, right? Well, you certainly don’t give them a test that’s 2 plus 2. And you certainly don’t give them something that we don’t understand yet, like what is gravity? So, we need to have a fair test out there, and I think that’s what we’re kind of struggling with a little bit. I think a lot of players struggled with that out there today. At some point the physics stop working, and I don’t think it’s a true test of who is better.”
DeChambeau later mentioned his level of satisfaction in remaining patient amid the weekend wreckage unfolding around him. The former U.S. Amateur winner was the only player to cover the final 36 holes under par.
World No. 1 Rory McIlory, the 2018 champion, was just two shots back at the start of the day, but a few “loose” shots cost him dearly. The Northern Irishman closed with a 76 and was part of a four-way tie for fifth at even-par 288. His consolation prize was joining Tiger Woods as the only players with seven or more consecutive top-five finishes since 2000. He didn’t seem impressed.
“It’s aggravating, but at the same time, I just have to keep telling myself the game’s there,” he said of his inability to close in recent tournaments, a malady that also plagued him early last season.
Winners of the B-Flight Sunday—otherwise known as the Open Qualifying Series that affords three players exemptions into the Open Championship, provided they finish in the top-10—were Keith Mitchell, Danny Lee and Joel Dahman, all who were part of the tie for fifth with McIlroy. Mitchell earned an Open spot via this tournament for the second straight year.
Hatton, who began the final round with a two-stroke lead, couldn’t help but revel in both his level of performance and his level-headedness. A fine ball-striker, he won this tournament with his iron game. He ranked first on Sunday in strokes gained/approach-the-green and second for the week.
Perhaps more importantly, he kept the histrionics in check— for the most part—which he attributed to modest expectations, given that this was just his second start after surgery on his right wrist. Why he would have modest expectations only he knows because he finished T-6 just two weeks ago in his comeback event, the WGC-Mexico Championship. Meanwhile, leading up to the operation, he was T-18 or better in five of six events, including a victory in the Turkish Airlines Open.
“So it might sound daft,” he began, “but my expectations maybe aren’t as high as they would be in a middle of the season if I had been playing quite a bit. But this is still kind of part of the comeback for me and maybe that helped.
“Obviously I was getting frustrated at times, but nowhere near the blowups that I am capable of. And it’s just one of those days where you just got to stick in there, and patience is one of the hardest things with me. To think that I’ve shot … what was it, three over for the weekend, and ended up winning the tournament. If you told me that on Friday night, I wouldn't have believed you.
“I’m just happy that I’ve managed myself well enough this week to be sitting here.”
Given where he was eight years ago, crashing with several roommates just up the road and not knowing where his career could lead him, it’s obvious that Hatton has managed himself well enough for quite some time. He’s now risen to No. 22 in the world.
Which has to be plenty satisfying.