When Rory McIlroy won the 2021 CJ Cup, he insisted he was still capable of being the best golfer in the world.
Almost a year to the day on Sunday, the Northern Irishman staked his claim in emphatic style, defending his crown in South Carolina to reclaim the No. 1 place in the ranking for the first time in more than two years.
McIlroy shot a final day 67 to finish 17 under at Congaree Golf Club and claim a one-stroke victory over Kurt Kitayama, a blistering run of three straight birdies down the stretch ultimately enough to see the four times big winner on the line despite closing with two bogeys.
Kitayama capped an impressive performance with a bogey-free four-under 67, but the American couldn’t find the birdies he needed in the final six holes to force a play-off.
McIlroy’s 23rd PGA Tour title rewarded him with $1.89 million in prize money and enough ranking points to overtake Scottie Scheffler, who finished 45th, and regain the No. 1. 1 spot for the first time since July of 2020.
It’s the ninth time McIlroy, 33, has held the No. 1 spot in his career, tied only with Tiger Woods and Greg Norman, both 11-time No. 1s. 1: Having accomplished the feat more often.
“It means a lot, I’ve worked hard over the last 12 months to get back to this place,” a visibly emotional McIlroy said as he stood on the 18th green.
“I feel like I’m enjoying the game as much as I ever have, I love golf and I think when I go out and play with that joy, it’s definitely shown over the last 12 months.
“I’m looking forward to celebrating with my team tonight and for the next few weeks because it’s a huge achievement. I’m really proud of myself right now.”
When McIlroy clinched the same title in Las Vegas last October, he did so after a devastating Ryder Cup loss and, by his standards, an underwhelming season.
Then ranked 8th in the world, McIlroy had given a tearful interview after Europe’s historic 19-9 defeat at Whistling Straits, arguing he “should have done more”.
If victory in his first subsequent outing had been his way of exorcising his Ryder Cup demons, the Northern Irishman has just gone from strength to strength this year.
His CJ Cup victories have seen triumphs at the Canadian Open and Tour Championship as 10 top-10 finishes in 16 PGA Tour events saw McIlroy steadily climb the rankings.
His consistency was exemplified on the majors’ biggest stage, where McIlroy finished no lower than eighth in any of the four events. The only downside was that despite coming awfully close at The Masters and The Open, he couldn’t seal a win to end his eight-year wait for a fifth major.
But you won’t find McIlroy dwelling on near-misses this week, as he flashed back to the Valero Texas Open in April, one of two occasions all season where he missed the cut in an event.
“If someone had told me on Friday night … I would be world number one. On October 1, I would have asked them what they were smoking because I wouldn’t have believed them,” he told reporters.
“It’s been a wild six months. I’ve figured out some things with my game and it’s been really good.
“Everything just feels like it’s coming together and today was just a continuation of how I’ve felt like I’ve been playing these past few months.
“Now it’s about moving on and trying to keep that going … it’s a lot to process right now, but really proud of how I handled myself this week knowing what was at stake.”
McIlroy gave special mention to his team, family and friends for supporting him in his return to the top.
“This tournament last year was the start of me trying to get back to this point,” he said.
“I had a really tough Ryder Cup … I was outside the top-10 in the world, it’s not a position I’m used to being in. The steady climb back to the top of world golf and what it takes – it’s not me , they are all who are part of my team.
“Whenever I think about that, that’s what gets me a little bit excited, because it’s great to be on this journey with other people that you want to be on the journey with.”