McIlroy's momentum headed in right direction through 54 holes

ORLANDO -- Rory McIlroy had just closed out a flawless, bogey-free 7-under 65 in the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Saturday when he was asked about the relationship between him and the tournament's namesake, who passed away six months ago.

There's a story behind this relationship, one with plenty of layers.

Earlier this week, McIlroy shared a letter from Palmer on social media. It was written during the summer of 2011, just after McIlroy had won the U.S. Open for his first major title. The man known as The King eloquently congratulated him in a four-paragraph message that concluded with these words: "We would love to have you at Bay Hill."

McIlroy, who was still focused on balancing his schedule between the United States and Europe, had yet to compete in Palmer's event, a fact that hadn't eluded the host.

Two years later, after two more snubs from McIlroy, Palmer joked on Golf Channel, "If he doesn't come and play Bay Hill, he might have a broken arm and he won't have to worry about where he's going to play next." At least we think he was joking.

Before McIlroy finally played here for the first time in 2015, the two of them dined together in the Bay Hill clubhouse -- and they immediately hit it off. Palmer told stories of the good old days. McIlroy sat intently and listened, soaking up each one of them.

"It was awesome," McIlroy recalled after getting himself into title contention Saturday with one round to play. "The stories he was telling, it was just really, really cool. So that's a memory that I'll cherish for the rest of my life. He's always been very good to me. Anytime I've seen him, he's been very encouraging."

Even without Palmer here to greet him this week, McIlroy should be encouraged by an increasingly steady performance that improved by 3 strokes from Thursday to Friday, and another 6 strokes from Friday to Saturday.

It will be a big ask for McIlroy to overcome the lead of Kevin Kisner and Charley Hoffman -- and a fivesome of other contenders ahead of him -- in Sunday's final round. But for as much as this tournament means to McIlroy, this progress might be more important for what it means three weeks from now.

The Northern Irishman has won every major championship except for the Masters Tournament, an event he famously coughed away on the back nine six years ago. The ironic part is that Augusta National suits his game -- long, high, power draws -- more than any other major setup.

Now he could become just the sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam at a venue where he already has a few demons.

If there was ever a man who could sympathize with those pains, it was Palmer.

A few years before his death, Palmer was asked about his greatest regret in the game.

"I'm sorry that I haven't won the PGA Championship," he said. "That would be something that would have pleased me very much. I suppose when I look back, I have a lot of reasons and excuses for not having won the PGA."

Palmer's seven career majors included four Masters titles, two at The Open and one at the U.S. Open, but none at the PGA, leaving a conspicuous blemish on an otherwise crowded résumé.

There's no telling what sort of advice Palmer would offer McIlroy, faced with a similar situation of trying to win that elusive final major championship, but there's little doubt that McIlroy would've sat intently and listened, just as he did during that first meeting two years ago.

They didn't have the lengthiest relationship, but it was a meaningful one. It meant enough that McIlroy knew he needed to make a conscious effort to play this event, even after Palmer's death.

"I wanted to play before he passed and spend a little bit of time with him," McIlroy said. "... I think the least I can do is come up here and play."

If he wins on Sunday, if he puts together another flawless round and surpasses Kisner, Hoffman and the other contenders ahead of him, McIlroy would be the first Arnold Palmer Invitational winner to claim the title without Palmer there to be the first to congratulate him.

He'll be thinking of him, though -- of the letters he sent to him, of what he meant to the game, of those stories from that first meeting. And he'll be glad he finally played this tournament, and that the host never followed through on breaking his arm.