AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Rory McIlroy had his first Arnold Palmer moment before the tournament even started.
He had just finished his pro-am round at Bay Hill and was about to walk out of the tunnel leading from the 18th green when a man asked him for a picture. McIlroy obliged, because he usually does. But this was different.
The man handed him a black bolero hat and told McIlroy it was from his squadron when he served in Vietnam. He didn't want a selfie with McIlroy. He wanted a picture of McIlroy wearing the hat that meant so much to him. The hat looked awkward on him with golfing attire, but McIlroy didn't mind.
It's all about giving the fans what they want.
Then the 28-year-old from Northern Ireland gave them something even better with what McIlroy described as a "perfect round of golf," certainly the closing stretch. He birdied five of the last six holes, capping it off with a 25-foot putt on the 18th hole to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
That ended his longest drought without a victory in eight years, and it cast him in a new light with the Masters approaching.
McIlroy had fallen to No. 13 in the world when he missed the cut the previous week at the Valspar Championship, his second missed cut in four PGA Tour events this year. He had not been that low in the ranking since April 25, 2010.
It's not that he was forgotten; rather, attention was shifting to so many others that it was easy to feel overlooked. All it took was one victory for the conversation to include his bid for a green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam.
"It's huge for my confidence going into the next few weeks," McIlroy said. "I kept saying I didn't need a win going into Augusta to feel like I had a chance. I just wanted to see signs of good golf. And thankfully, I've been able to get both."
Just don't get the idea his confidence was lagging.
McIlroy always says that when he's playing well, it's hard to remember ever playing poorly. And when he's playing poorly, it's hard to remember what it was like to play well. But he has a history of going through spurts of mediocrity, and coming out of it strong without notice. Most memorable was in 2012 when he missed the cut four times in five tournaments. Two months later, he won the PGA Championship and consecutive FedEx Cup playoff events.
Three times in his career, McIlroy has won in his next start after missing the cut. Five other times, he won after finishing out of the top 30.
That's why he wasn't the least bit concerned after missing the cut at the Valspar Championship.
"It's such a fine line out here, and I might have sounded crazy the last few weeks when I was telling everyone it actually feels pretty close and I'm not that far away, and I'm putting up 72s and 73s," he said. "And all of a sudden, it all clicks into place and I end up winning a golf tournament by three shots and shooting 8 under on the last day. So it's fine lines out here. I think you have to play the game to really appreciate that. It's not as black and white as some people make it out to be."
He could think of only one time he was genuinely worried about his game.
McIlroy was 19 and in his first full year as a pro in 2008. He had only two top 10s all year on the European Tour. He wasn't eligible for any of the majors. He had missed three straight cuts in Sweden, Holland and Scotland. He was concerned he might lose his card. And then he lost in a playoff in Switzerland, lost in another playoff in Hong Kong and won his first pro event early in the next year.
"And I was off and running," he said.
McIlroy reached No. 50 with that playoff loss in Hong Kong, and he hasn't fallen out since then. He's had a few dips, sure, "but it's not as if I've had to panic."
Palmer and McIlroy share one other connection, at least for now. They are one leg short of the Grand Slam. Palmer never won the PGA Championship. McIlroy needs the Masters. When they had dinner at Bay Hill in 2015 — right before McIlroy's first crack at the fourth leg of the slam — the topic never came up.
"It's amazing to think, all that Arnold did in the game, he never won that Grand Slam," McIlroy said.
McIlroy at the Masters, Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open and Jordan Spieth at the PGA Championship each have a chance at the career slam this year.
"I'm glad to be part of that conversation, get the first shot at it in a few weeks," McIlroy said. "So we'll see how we go."
His game is never far away, even if it doesn't look like it at times.
This article was written by Doug Ferguson from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.