Ridgeland, South Carolina – Final steps on Rory McIlroyThe long way back to #1 came down on the scorecard like a ghost, which made him laugh. All that mattered on Sunday was winning the CJ Cup in South Carolina, and that made him cry.
McIlroy regained the top spot for the ninth time by postponing Kurt Kitayama He endured a nervous moment at the end with a three-shot bogey that gave him a 4-under 67 and a one-shot victory.
More than arranging, he was aware of how far he had come with so much support behind the scenes that made his voice choke a bit with emotion.
“This tournament last year was the beginning of my attempt to rebuild myself up to this point,” McIlroy said. “I had a really tough Ryder Cup. I think I was out of the top 10 in the world – it’s not a position I used to be in.”
McIlroy went 1-3 in a Ryder Cup loss. He’s been outside the top 10 for 15 straight weeks, the longest streak of his career since he first reached number one a decade ago. For a player of his caliber, that made him feel even more behind than he already was.
“I think just the steady rise to the top of world golf and what it takes,” he said. “And I’m not alone, everyone is part of my team. I just think of everyone who has made a difference in my life, not over the past twelve months, but absolutely.”
Inside the ropes, McIlroy was a vintage.
Tied with Kitayama by five holes to go to Congaree, McIlroy ran three straight birds to take control. The pivotal race started with a 5-iron from 227 yards to 15 feet in the 14th par-3, only the fifth jumper on the hole in the last round.
“I think the 14-year-old bird was really…that’s what broke off…the 14-year-old bird was big,” McIlroy said. This was followed by another significant moment on the 348-yard hole 15, as he climbed up and down for Byrdie and Kitayama three times from 40 feet.
McIlroy followed by hitting a 20-foot bird on the 16th.
McIlroy, who finished the race 17th under 267, won for the 23rd time on the PGA Tour and the 31st time worldwide.
This seemed like a long time to come.
He won the CJ Cup for the second time in a row. The South Korean-based tournament was held in Las Vegas last year, when McIlroy was ranked 14th in the world.
So he began his rise again to number one, with victories at the Canadian Open and Tour Championship to capture the FedEx Cup, and with help from Scotty Scheffler Cooling from its warm extension through the masters.
“I’ve worked really hard for the past 12 months to come back to this place,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I’m enjoying the game more than ever. I’ve played with such joy and it has definitely popped up over the past few months.
“It’s a huge achievement. I’m very proud of myself now.”
McIlroy was No. 1 when golf was closed for three months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, losing the rankings to John Ram When the Spaniard won the monument in mid-July 2020.
Schaeffler finished in the middle of the group at Congaree, which means McIlroy could have been the runner-up and still take the top spot. He wanted the trophy, and the work was harder than he imagined.
McIlroy had a bet on a 1-shot lead in the final round and was never behind, although it wasn’t easy until he walked toward the 18th green, and even that made him sweat. He had two shots and fired his 40-foot shot at about 8 feet, while Kitayama had 20 feet for the birdie. They both missed.
Ram, who took home a win at the Spanish Open, tied McIlroy on three early occasions while playing in the group in front of him. Ram was still in the mix until his tee along the 3-bar 14 hit a dead-end lie in the vault face, creating a bogey.
He ended up with 69 points to tie for fourth place.
The real threat was Kitayama, a three-time winner while playing in Asia and Europe. The 29-year-old overcame an early deficit with two shots and was tied for the lead until McIlroy took charge with big butts and couldn’t answer.
Kitayama played free of ghost and closed with a score of 67 for his third runner-up since joining the PGA Tour last year, behind McIlroy, Xander Shaveli in Scotland and Ram in Mexico. He made $1,134,000.
“This is a difficult group of young people to overcome,” Kitayama said. “I just have to keep getting better.”
McIlroy has had three wins this year, closing in with 62 in the Canadian Open to outscore Tony Vino And the Justin Thomas66 in the Tour to beat Schaeffler and 67 in the Congaree with two closing ghosts, just enough to celebrate two big moments.
Another souvenir, and finally another trip to the top of golf.