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 delivered on his promise with a bang, defending his crown in South Carolina to reclaim the top spot in the standings for the first time in over two years.
McIlroy carded a final day 67 to finish 17 under at Congaree Golf Club and notch a one-shot win over Kurt Kitayama, a blistering streak of three straight birdies on the stretch ultimately enough to see the four-time major winner on the line despite being closing with two bogeys.
Kitayama capped off an impressive performance with a bogey-free four under 67, but the American couldn’t find the birdie he needed on 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 reclaim the top spot for the first time since July 2020. .
It is the ninth time the 33-year-old McIlroy has held the No. 1 spot in his career, with only Tiger Woods and Greg Norman – both 11 times No. 1 – having achieved the feat more often.
“It means a lot, I’ve worked so hard over the past 12 months to get back to this place,” said a visibly emotional McIlroy as he stood on the 18th green.
“I feel like I’m enjoying the game as much as ever, I love the game of golf and I think when I go out and play with that joy, it definitely showed in the last 12 months. .
“I look forward to celebrating with my team tonight and over the next two weeks because it’s a great achievement. I’m really proud of myself right now. »
When McIlroy clinched the same title in Las Vegas last October, he did so on the heels of a resounding Ryder Cup loss and, by his standards, a disappointing season.
Then ranked 8th in the world, McIlroy gave a tearful interview after Europe’s historic 19-9 defeat at Whistling Straits, saying he “should have done more”.
If winning his first subsequent outing had been his way of exorcising all Ryder Cup demons, the Northern Irishman has just gone from strength to strength this year.
Between his CJ Cup victories, there have been Canadian Open and Tour Championship triumphs, while 10 top-10 finishes in 16 PGA Tour events have seen McIlroy climb steadily in the standings .
His consistency was exemplified on the biggest stage of major tournaments, where McIlroy did not finish below eighth in any of the four events. The only downside was that, despite his excruciatingly close proximity to the Masters and the Open, he couldn’t seal a victory to end his eight-year wait for a fifth major.
But you won’t find McIlroy dwelling on near misses this week, as he looked back at the Valero Texas Open in April, one of only two occasions this season he missed the cut in an event. .
“If someone had told me on Friday night…I would be world No. 1 by October, I would have asked them what they were smoking because I wouldn’t have believed them,” he said. to journalists.
“It’s been a wild six months. I figured out some things with my game and I just had a really good race.
“Everything seems to be falling into place for me and today was just a continuation of what I felt like I had been playing for the past few months.
“Now it’s about moving on and trying to keep going…it’s a lot to process right now but I’m really proud of myself with the way I’ve handled this week knowing what was at stake.”
McIlroy gave a special mention to his team, family and friends for supporting him on his return to the top.
“That tournament last year was the start for me to try to rebuild myself to this point,” he said.
“I had a really tough Ryder Cup…I was outside the top 10 in the world, that’s not a position I’m used to. The steady rise to the top of world golf and what it takes: it’s not just me, it’s everyone who is part of my team.
“Every time I think about it, that’s what makes me kind of shocked and emotional because it’s really cool to take this trip with other people that you want to take the trip with.”