Australian Marc Leishman needed to do something special in the final few weeks leading up to the Masters Tournament to earn a return to Augusta National Golf Club.
Leishman, who has played in the Masters four times, produced the biggest shots at the biggest moments Sunday to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It was his second PGA Tour victory and, like the first at the 2012 Travelers Championship, it earned him a spot in the Masters field.
The final round came down to a four-man race over the second nine at Bay Hill, where the life of the late, great Arnold Palmer was celebrated. Palmer, the founder of the club and the tournament, died on September 25, 2016.
Paying homage to Palmer is one of the things that made the victory so sweet for Leishman, 33, who has nine wins worldwide.
“It’s obviously a really special week,” Leishman said. “Mr. Palmer was an awesome guy, who I was lucky enough to meet a few times at this tournament. To honor him is huge.
“It’s the first time I’ve won a tournament with my family here, with Audrey and the boys (Oliver and Harvey).
“And the Masters, too. It was certainly a goal of mine. I needed to get it done or sit at home and watch the Masters, which is not fun if you've already been there and played there, because you know how cool it is to be there.”
Kevin Kisner and Charley Hoffman, the 54-hole co-leaders, and Rory McIlroy shared the spotlight until Leishman’s 50-foot eagle putt at the par-5 16th hole gave him the lead for the first time at 11 under par. Kisner, Hoffman and McIlroy had previously punched their ticket to the Masters, which put the pressure on Leishman to get it done.
A final-round 69 gave Leishman a 277 total, one shot better than Kisner and Hoffman and two shots ahead of McIlroy and Tyrrell Hatton.
"Around here, things can change quite quick. ... You just have to stay right in it, not think about what’s at the end, just what you have to do." - Marc Leishman
The Arnold Palmer Invitational was the first of the final three events in which a golfer can earn an invitation to the Masters, April 6-9. Any golfer not already in the field who wins or reaches the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week’s WGC-Dell Match Play will be invited. A final spot will be held for the winner of next week’s Shell Houston Open, if that player hasn’t already qualified.
For the longest time, the focus at Bay Hill was on the leaders, Kisner, who is from Aiken, S.C., just down the road from Augusta, and Hoffman. McIlroy, who has quite a history at the Masters, entered the fray with his final-round 69, which included seven birdies.
“Around here, things can change quite quick,” Leishman said. “You don’t have to hit that bad of a shot to make bogeys out there. You just have to stay right in it, not think about what’s at the end, just what you have to do.”
After the eagle putt at No. 16 put him in front, Leishman protected the lead with fine up-and-down par saves at No. 17 (out of a bunker) and No. 18 (after driving into the rough).
“I was holing good putts there the last few holes,” he said. “They all went in the middle of the hole, which is nice. The putter has been amazing this year.”
In 2013, Leishman tied for fourth at the Masters after qualifying with a victory at the Travelers Championship. His best finish in a major championship came at the 2015 Open Championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews, where he reached a playoff against the eventual winner, Zach Johnson, and Jason Day.
Kisner finished T37 in his Masters debut last year. He earned a return based on qualifying for the Tour Championship last year.
“I've already started my preparation for Augusta, so that was nice to know that I was in six months ago,” Kisner said. “That's a huge tournament for me. Growing up there, it’s always been a big part of my life, so I like the way my game's progressing for it.”
McIlroy returned to competition at the WGC-Mexico Championship after missing seven weeks with a rib fracture, an injury he suffered at the BMW South African Open in January. With Sunday’s result, the former world No. 1 leapfrogged Day into the No. 2 spot behind Dustin Johnson.
McIlroy, winner of four major championships, has made an impressive return, adding a T4 at Bay Hill to a T7 in Mexico. McIlroy has won the PGA Championship (2012, 2014), the U.S. Open (2011) and the British Open (2014).
“I struggled the first two days here,” McIlroy said. “I found it a little bit on the weekend, and it's just nice to get to play again and get to feel like you're playing a run of events. … I'm just happy that I'm out here playing again and I feel good, so it's all good. It’s been good consistent play, and that hopefully bodes well for the year ahead.”
McIlroy has finished in the top 10 at the Masters in each of the last three years – T8 in 2014, fourth in 2015 and T10 last year.