RIDGELAND, SC – The final stages of Rory McIlroy’s long road back to No. 1 go down as a bogey on the scorecard, which makes him laugh. The bottom line on Sunday was winning the CJ Cup in South Carolina, and that made him cry.
McIlroy held off Kurt Kitayama and withstood stress at the end to record a 1-under 67 and a 1-shot victory to claim the No. 1 spot for the ninth time.
He’s realizing how far he’s come, with plenty of support behind him as he sings his voice with emotion above the stage.
“This tournament was the start of me trying to build myself up to this point last year,” McIlroy said. “I had a really difficult Ryder Cup. I think I was outside the top 10 in the world – not where I belong.”
McIlroy went 1-3 in the Ryder Cup loss. His longest streak since reaching No. 1 a decade ago was 15 consecutive weeks outside the top 10. For a player of his caliber, that made him feel even more backward than he already was.
“I think it’s just about getting to the top of world golf and constantly figuring out what it takes,” he said. “And it’s not just me, it’s everyone who’s part of my team. I’m not just thinking about the last 12 months, it’s about all the people who have made a difference in my life.”
At the ropes, it was Wine McIlroy.
Tied with Kitayama with five holes left at Congare, McIlroy rattled off three straight birdies to take control. The decisive run began with a 5-iron from 227 yards to 15 feet on the par-3 14th, with just the fifth birdie of the final round.
“I think the birdie on 14 was really … that’s what set it apart … the birdie on 14 was big,” McIlroy said. That was followed by another key moment on the 348-yard 15th hole, where Kitayama three-putted for a birdie-under par from 40 feet.
McIlroy made a 20-foot birdie putt on the 16th.
Massilroy, who finished 17-under 267, won for the 23rd time on the PGA Tour and 31st time worldwide.
When he reached No. 1 in the world, it was the ninth most times to reach the top of the rankings, behind only Tiger Woods and Greg Norman (both 11).
This felt like a long time coming.
He won the CJ Cup for the second time. The South Korea-based tournament was held in Las Vegas last year, where McIlroy was ranked 14th in the world.
And with wins at the Canadian Open and Tour Championship to capture the FedEx Cup and a sweep to the Masters with the help of Scotty Scheffler, he began his climb to No. 1.
“I’ve worked really hard over the last 12 months to get back to this position,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I’m excited about the game, I’ve played with that excitement and it’s definitely shown over the last few months.
“It’s a huge achievement. I’m proud of myself now.”
McIlroy was No. 1 when golf was shut down at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and In mid-July 2020, the Spaniard lost his status to Jon Rahm when he won the Memorial.
Scheffler finished in the middle of the pack over Congaree, meaning McIlroy could have finished first and still regained the No. 1 ranking. He wanted the trophy, and it was a tougher job than he thought.
McIlroy took a 1-shot lead into the final round and it wasn’t easy until he got to the 18th green, and even that made him sweat. He had a 2-shot lead and hit his 40-footer to 8 feet, while Kitayama made 20-footer for birdie. He missed them both.
Rahm won the Spanish Open and tied McIlroy on three occasions while playing in the group ahead of him. Rahm’s tee shot on the long par-3 14th caught a lie on the face of the fairway, leading him to bogey.
He shot a 69 to tie for fourth.
The real threat was Kitayama, a three-time winner playing in Asia and Europe. The 29-year-old Californian overcame an early 2-shot deficit to tie for the lead until McIlroy took over with big putts and could not answer.
Kitayama played bogey-free and closed with a 67 to finish third on the PGA Tour last year after joining McIlroy, Xander Schaufele in Scotland and Rahm in Mexico. He earned $1,134,000.
“That’s a tough group of guys to beat,” Kitayama said. “I have to keep improving.”
KH Lee finished third with a 68, while Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood (65) finished another shot behind.
McIlroy has three wins this year, a 62 over Tony Finau and Justin Thomas at the Canadian Open, a 66 over Scheffler at the Tour Championship and a 67 at Congare with two closing bogeys, enough to mark two big moments.
Another trophy and finally another trip to the top of golf.