McIlroy fades at Bay Hill as title defence slips away

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Heading into the 2019 Arnold Palmer Invitational, McIlroy had tallied 14 career victories.

ORLANDO, Fla. - The door that Rory McIlroy keeps knocking on refuses to open.

Molinari's 64, the best round in the field on Sunday by two strokes, concluded almost two hours before the leaders - which coincidentally including McIlroy this year - finished up their rounds.

Yes, even if he goes from the final group to an also-ran.

Skipped Bay Hill but is in the Players looking to emulate 2008 victory. I don't want to overstate the importance of learning how to win on the best tour in the world, but there's certainly still a little "I kind of need to see it to believe it" lingering with Fleetwood.

"I didn't play this tournament for various reasons and I would always get a letter from Arnold every year saying, "Hoping to see you at Bay Hill", McIlroy said. A bogey on the par-4 8th stained his scorecard and put him one stroke behind Fitzpatrick in solo second place (8 under). It was the highest 54-hole score to lead at Bay Hill since Ben Crenshaw was at 210 in 1993.

He'll also be one of the favorites in four weeks at the Masters Tournament, where he caddied for his brother Edoardo in the 2006 Masters and will be making his seventh appearance at Augusta National - as a player, that is.

The Northern Irishman started the day seven shots behind Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley but birdied four of his first six holes and three of the last four. "The smart thing to do was to take a long break". "Whenever you start them on line they have a good chance".

Matt Fitzpatrick managed only two birdies in his round of 1-under 71 and made a 3-foot par putt to finish alone in second. The pars weren't bad, either.

Four-time major victor McIlroy says he regrets that scheduling conflict but is determined to honour "The King" by defending his title in Sunday's final round. Molinari made nearly 147 feet of putts on Sunday, including a 44-footer for birdie on the final hole.

That finished put him where he wanted-the final group. This will be the third time in five events this year that he plays in the last group. The group another shot back included Masters champions Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson, and Eddie Pepperell, who is playing a regular PGA Tour event for the first time and got caught with his trousers up.

But there are plenty of others still in the mix.

This time, he was in good position just one shot behind Fitzpatrick. He also was five back. The reigning champion ended up tied for sixth on the leaderboard, moved up four spots in the FedEx Cup rankings and pocketed $295,000. The ball landed just right and rolled out to 6 feet behind the flag on the upper right shelf of the green. After all that, Bradley was just three shots behind.

Australia's Aaron Baddeley, England's Matt Wallace and American Kevin Kisner shared third on 209 but McIlroy, who began the day seven adrift, said plenty of rivals are within reach of the title.

"Just played really smart", said Fitzpatrick.

McIlroy came to Bay Hill focusing on the positive - telling reporters he's hitting his "mini goals" and that it's hard to become frustrated when you're playing good golf in general.