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Leishman eagle clinches Bay Hill win


Marc Leishman was able to whisk up some stunning putting magic when it really counted on Sunday and it enabled him to edge clear in a dramatic four-man final-round shootout and win the famed Arnold Palmer Invitational by a shot. 

In the first Invitational since the death of legendary Arnold Palmer, Leishman, a 33-year-old Australian journeyman golfer who had only won once before on the US PGA Tour - in the Travelers Championship in 2012 - and once on the European Tour - in the Nedbank Challenge in 2015 - took the game by the horns on Sunday by one-putting the last four holes, his coup de Gras being the monster 51-foot eagle putt he nailed at the par-five 16th after he had found the green in two. 

At a moment in time when he, Northern Ireland's charging Rory McIlroy and the American overnight leaders, Kevin Kisner and Charlie Hoffman, were locked together in a life and death struggle at 10-under, this shock eagle hoisted Leishman into a critical one-shot lead at 11-under and carried him on to the 3-under 69 and the closing 11-under 277 tally that would see him triumph by one shot over Kisner and Hoffman, both of whom closed with 1-over 73s to tie for second. 

And McIlroy? 

His sparkling 65 on Saturday and continuing brilliance on Sunday had brought him into the picture from nowhere, but in attempting to reel in Leishman with a final birdie at 18, he stumbled with a bogey when he three-putted from 31 feet and it dropped him back into a tie for third at 9-under with England's once more impressive young gun Tyrell Hatton (71).

Adam Hadwin, the bearded 29-year-old Canadian who last week won his first US PGA Tour title at the Valspar, proved it was no fluke by finishing a shot further back in 6th place with a 71. 

For McIlroy, who was hitting his drives awesome distances - one was reported to have soared all of 383 yards - his finish wasn't quite what he hoped for, but his overall weekend performance, once he had warmed up, certainly sounded a warning to all that he will be one of the players to beat in next month's Masters, the only major he has yet to win. 

It also ensured that he will leapfrog Jason Day and move up onto the World No 2 rung when the world Rankings are up-dated on Monday.

Day closed with a 70, but could only tie for 23rd in a group that included two-time major winner Martin Kaymer of Germany. 

But getting back to Leishman, who, like McIlroy, was able to shrug away a five-shot deficit at the start of the day with a closing 69 - the big, beefy Aussie was over the moon with his victory in a tournament dedicated to the memory of the charismatic star they called 'The King'. 

"Mr Palmer was a very special guy," Leishman said. "To win it in honour of him is huge." 

On his match-winning close, he said, "It just all came together. To do it here is really good. It was just an unbelievable day."

On McIlroy's bogey that prevented the event going into a tie-breaker, Leishman added: "Around here, things can change so quick. You've just got to stay right in it, not think about what's the end result, just focus on what you've got to do. I was focused on my putts and luckily they all went into the hole."

His five-footer at the last was a a 10th of the distance covered by his stunning eagle maker at 16, but it was just as crucial - and a lot more stressful, because, for one brief spell, it looked as if he too, like McIlroy, might also stumble at the last. 

This when he put his approach in a bunker very close to the 18th pin. Getting it close to make sure of the par he needed to win would not be easy - and he almost fluffed it. 

His shot out of it barely cleared the bunker, landing on the fairway grass edging the green, before it almost grudgingly rolled a few stuttering feet onto the green to leave him with some work still to do, but with a relatively straight-forward, up-and-down for victory. 

His rivals weren't as zeroed in. McIlroy blew it with is three-putt 18th green, Hoffman slipped out of contention at 17, finding a bunker off the tee and missing an eight-foot par putt, and Kisner hit his approach at 18 into a bunker and needed to hole it to force a playoff. 

When the ball rolled four feet wide, Leishman was able to punch the air in triumph. 

In this, his first victory in front of his family, Leishman, among other things, qualified to challenge for a Green Jacket at Augusta National where he shared fourth place in 2013. 

He hasn't won too often, but the 'big fella' seems to have a penchant for the big time. He was also a British Open runner-up in 2015 when he lost the playoff to Zach Johnson. 

(Par 72 - US unless stated)

277 Marc Leishman (AUS) 71 66 71 69
278 Charley Hoffman 68 66 71 73, Kevin Kisner 70 67 68 73
279 Rory McIlroy (NIR) 74 71 65 69, Tyrell Hatton (ENG) 72 69 67 71
280 Adam Hadwin (CAN) 70 70 69 71
281 Emiliano Grillo (ARG) 67 68 78 68, Francesco Molinari (ITA) 70 68 74 69, Lucas Glover 68 69 72 72
282 Tommy Fleetwood (ENG) 78 66 70 68, Hudson Swafford 73 72 69 68
283 Rickie Fowler 74 72 65 72
284 Brian Harman 72 70 73 69, Billy Horschel 72 73 67 72, Justin Rose (ENG) 71 70 70 73, Matthew Fitzpatrick (ENG) 67 69 72 76
285 Danny Lee (NZL) 75 70 73 67, Luke List 71 71 72 71, Pat Perez 74 70 69 72, Michael Kim 72 71 70 72, Kyle Stanley 73 68 69 75, Greg Chalmers (AUS) 69 72 69 75. 

Neville Leck

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