Rory McIlroy can regain world No. 1 at CJ Cup for the ninth time in his career and why the ranking still matters to him

RIDGELAND, S.C. – Rory McIlroy has his sights set on returning to world No. 1 for the first time in more than two years as he defends his title at the CJ Cup in South Carolina.

McIlroy needs either to win this week and have reigning world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler finish worse than a two-way tie for second, or he can finish second as long as Scheffler finishes worse than 34th (out of a field of 78), to return to the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking for the ninth different time in his career. To date, McIlroy’s spent a total of 106 weeks as king of the hill, relinquishing the throne on July 19, 2020, when Jon Rahm unseated him. (Scheffler has been No. 1 for 30 weeks since March 27.)

It’s been more than a decade since McIlroy claimed world No.1 for the first time after outdueling Tiger Woods to win the 2012 Honda Classic. It had been a goal of McIlroy’s ever since he had cracked the top five with a victory at the 2011 U.S. Open.

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“I remember waking up the next morning and being like, ‘Is this it?’ You know, you sort of, you work towards a goal for so long and then you wake up the next day and you don’t feel any different after having achieved it,” he said. “So I think then it’s a matter of having to reframe your goals and reframe what success looks like. I think that’s one of the great things about this game, no matter how much you’ve achieved or how much success you’ve had, you always want to do something else, there’s always something else to do.”

For years, McIlroy has made a habit of checking every Sunday night the Twitter handle VC606, who has become an authority on the complex mathematical formula that weights tournaments played over the last two years on a sliding scale, so recent performances carry greater importance, and based on strength of field, for the latest movements in the rankings. Then he’ll log on to the OWGR website on Monday morning for closer inspection.

“I maybe don’t keep as much of a close eye on it as I used to, but still it’s a point of pride for all of us out there to be highly ranked and to get to No. 1 in the world at whatever you do is an unbelievable accolade,” he said.

To McIlroy, who won the FedEx Cup for an unprecedented third time in August, regaining the top spot would signify how far he has come since the PGA Tour resumed its season in July 2020 after a 90-day COVID-19 break. McIlroy slumped – for him – dropping as low as No. 16 in the world last August and entered the 2021 CJ Cup, which was played a year ago in Las Vegas, at No. 13. The low point? Last year’s Ryder Cup when the de facto leader of Team Europe played so poorly that he was benched for one of the sessions on Saturday for the first time.

“I think that was like the reset button for me to sort of…ask myself some tough questions, and thankfully I’ve come out the other side of it and I’m better for that experience,” he said.

What McIlroy has accomplished since his win at the CJ Cup – two more titles among 13 straight events of T-20 or better – is all the more impressive when you consider he’s become the unofficial spokesman for the Tour during its battle with Saudi-funded LIV Golf.

“The golf is one thing – we know how great he is – but the fact that he shouldered such a responsibility for the Tour, for the history of golf, for what he thinks golf should be and the fact that he took a stand of where the LIV money is coming from and was a leader, that was the most impressive thing to me,” said NBC/Golf Channel analyst John Wood. “To take on that responsibility and play great golf was phenomenal. It’s one of the most impressive seasons I’ve seen.”

As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. For McIlroy, it began with his victory at the CJ Cup a year ago. Whether he achieves the feat of world No. 1 again or not this week, it’s the journey, he said, that he’ll cherish most.

“It’s sort of like a heavyweight boxer losing a world title and it’s a journey to get that title back,” he said. “I feel like that’s the cool part of it and that’s the journey that I’ve sort of been through over the past 12 months.”