ORLANDO, Fla. -- Before his Sunday triumph at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy's last PGA Tour victory happened at the 2016 Tour Championship, exactly 539 days earlier. He hit some tremendous shots that day, winning both the tournament and the FedEx Cup all at once. As soon as he finished his post-round news conference, with both trophies gleaming on the table in front of him, McIlroy leaned in as a tournament official whispered in his ear. The celebration immediately turned somber.
Arnold Palmer had just died.
The man who'd meant so much to so many people, the man who'd spent time with McIlroy and befriended him not long before then.
He listened to the news, processed it and took a deep breath, his entire mood shifting in those few moments. Then he spoke.
"Arnie put the game on the map," McIlroy offered. "I don't think any other sportsperson in any sport did for their profession what Arnie did for the game."
The relationship between Palmer and McIlroy wasn't always congenial.
It was late 2012 when Palmer was asked about having the 23-year-old two-time major champion play his eponymous event for the first time. Forever feisty, The King shook his finger and howled, "I'm going to tell you something: 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."
Despite the threat, McIlroy didn't play Palmer's tournament the next year -- or the year after that. It wasn't until 2015 that the young star made the trip to Bay Hill.
After an opening-round 70, McIlroy joined the tournament host for dinner in the clubhouse that night.
When asked Sunday what he remembered about that night, McIlroy first thought of Palmer's unorthodox condiment choice. "He liked A1 sauce on his fish," he recalled. "Which was quite strange."
The food, though, paled in comparison to the conversation. Mostly, Palmer talked while McIlroy listened intently. He told the story of winning the 1961 Open Championship, still having to qualify for the next year's edition of the event, then winning that one, too.
After 90 minutes together, neither wanted to leave. And so they ordered two banana splits for dessert, as Arnie kept talking and Rory kept listening.
"I was just mesmerized for that two hours that I spent with him," McIlroy said. "So much time for everyone and I was very fortunate to spend that time with him."
Palmer didn't talk that night about his greatest regret in golf, but it could've been a relevant topic. Though he won seven major championship titles, he never claimed a PGA Championship, forever leaving him agonizingly short of a career grand slam.
Following his victory this weekend, McIlroy will surge up the short list of potential Masters Tournament contenders in less than three weeks. It remains the lone major title not on his résumé, a win at Augusta National clinching the one achievement that stymied Palmer.
This one, though, was less about the future than the present.
As he finished his three-stroke victory, on the strength of a final-round 64 that included birdies on five of the last six holes, McIlroy was thinking about his late friend and how much he wished Palmer could've been here to share his success.
"I wish he would have been at the top of the hill to shake my hand when I came off the 18th green there," he said, "but hopefully he's proud of me with the way I played that back nine. I tried to be as aggressive as I could and tried to take on shots when I needed to, just like he would have. So yeah, it's sort of come full circle since that day."
The day he referenced was the last day he won. The day Arnold Palmer died.
It has been a long 539 days since then for McIlroy, who has struggled to find the form he displayed this weekend. It has been a longer 539 days for those around the world who revered The King, and especially for those right here at Bay Hill who simply knew him as Arnie.
That includes McIlroy himself, who was once threatened by Palmer for failing to play his tournament, only to forge a special relationship with the man.
"It's ironic that I come back here 18 months on and win for the first time at Bay Hill and everything that's associated with that," McIlroy said. "I'm never going to be able to leave a mark on the game like Arnie did, but I'll try to emulate in some way. If I could get halfway close to that, I'll have had a pretty good career."