ORLANDO, Fla. — Marc Leishman kept shifting his eyes toward the glare coming from the silver Arnold Palmer Invitational trophy at his side. Beyond the shiny prize, between two images of Palmer, was a black banner with six words that defined how Palmer approached the game.
"You must play boldly to win."
Leishman followed that script Sunday to a one-shot victory at Bay Hill.
He didn’t flinch over three key par putts over the last four holes. And even after his most disappointing shot down the stretch, a 9-iron on the par-5 16th hole that settled 50 feet away from the flag, the 33-year-old Australian knocked it in for an eagle that allowed him to jump past Rory McIlroy, Kevin Kisner and Charley Hoffman into the lead alone. He never gave back, and no one could catch him.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Leishman, except at the end.
"It’s sad not to have him up there walking off the 18th green, to be that first guy to walk off and not be greeted by Arnold Palmer," Leishman said. "But he’s left such a great legacy, and I’m sure he will be proud of how everything has gone this week."
The occasion was no less joyous. Leishman’s final act was a 45-yard pitch from short of the 18th green that ran out to 3 feet, a putt that looked a lot closer when he saw the replay on television. He calmly knocked that in for a 3-under 69.
Onto the green ran his two sons, ages 5 and 3, as wife Audrey waited for him. Just two years ago, Leishman worried he wouldn’t have her. He was called away during practice at Augusta National upon learning his wife was suffering toxic shock syndrome. Doctors put her in a coma to help fight the infection.
"It’s been a wild ride and it makes golf … I want to do it well, but it makes it less important. It’s not life and death," Leishman said. "It’s just great to be able to share this with someone."
The oldest boy, Harvey, kept asking him when he was going to bring home the trophy. This was a big one.
To honour Palmer, who died in September, the PGA Tour now awards a three-year exemption and raised the purse to $8.7 million, meaning Leishman won $1,566,000 — just $295,857 less than what Palmer won in his PGA Tour career.
Leishman finished at 11-under 277.
Canadian Adam Hadwin, fresh off his first PGA victory at the Valspar Championship last weekend, finished in sixth place, three shots back of Leishman.
Kisner and Hoffman, tied for the 54-hole lead, each closed with a 73 and had their chances.
Kisner had a three-shot lead at the turn, but he didn’t make a birdie over his last 11 holes. Hoffman shot 39 on the front nine, rallied to get back into a share of the lead when Kisner faltered with a pair of bogeys and then three-putted for par on the 16th and made bogey from the back bunker on the 17th.
"I had it right there in the palm of my hand to win, and I didn’t get it done," Kisner said.
Rory McIlroy had as good a chance as anyone, storming into a share of the lead by hooking a wedge around a tree, over the water and over the green on the 16th, then nearly holing the eagle chip. He had a 30-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead on the 18th, and after seeing that Leishman had made eagle on the 16th, gave it a good run. The putt went 8 feet by and three-putt for a 69 to finish two shots back.
"These things happen," McIlroy said. "But I’m pleased with how I went. Ten under for the weekend around here is good scoring, and I can take a lot of positives from it going into next week."
Leishman was lurking all day, and a 6-foot putt to save par from a bunker on the 15th kept his hopes going. The turning point came on the par-5 16th, playing only 515 yards with the wind, and Leishman’s tee shot left him only a 9-iron to the green that he tugged to the left.
Standing over the putt, he backed off and recalled the same putt from a practice round Tuesday. He missed it by 3 feet to the left.
"So I read it and I was over that putt and I actually remembered that I hit that putt, so I backed off, took another practice swing and adjusted my read," he said.
It poured into the heart of the cup for an eagle and the lead.
In the group behind him, Hoffman’s approach to the 16th was inches away from staying on top shelf. He rammed it 8 feet by and three-putted. Kisner’s approach from a fairway bunker just ran off to the right, behind a bunker that left him a difficult flop shot. It came up short and into the bunker, and he had to scramble for par.
Leishman was No. 62 in the world and only had two weeks left to secure a spot in the Masters. The victory takes care of that.