When Rory McIlroy won the 2021 CJ Cup, he insisted he was still capable of being the world’s best golfer.
Almost a year to the day on Sunday, the Northern Irishman delivered on his claim in emphatic style, defending his crown in South Carolina to reclaim the No. 1 ranked spot for the first time in over two years.
McIlroy carded a final day 67 to end 17-under at Congaree Golf Club and clinch a one-shot victory over Kurt Kitayama, a blistering run of three straight birdies down the stretch ultimately enough to see the four-time major winner over the line despite closing with two bogeys.
Kitayama closed an impressive performance with a bogey-free, four-under 67, but the American could not find the birdie he needed across the final six holes to force a play-off.
McIlroy’s 23rd title on the PGA Tour rewarded him with $1.89 million in prize money and enough ranking points to leapfrog Scottie Scheffler – who finished 45th – and reclaim the No. 1 spot for the first time since July 2020.
It marks the ninth occasion the 33-year-old McIlroy has held top spot in his career, with only Tiger Woods and Greg Norman – both 11-time No. 1’s – having achieved the feat more often.
“It means a lot, I’ve worked so hard over the last 12 months to get myself 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 absolutely love the game of golf and I think that 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 over the next couple of weeks because it’s a big achievement. I’m really proud of myself right now.”
‘I would have asked them what they were smoking’
When McIlroy clinched the same title in Las Vegas last October, he did so in the wake of a shattering Ryder Cup defeat and, by his standard, an underwhelming season.
Then ranked 8th in the world, McIlroy had given a tearful interview following Europe’s historic 19-9 loss at Whistling Straits, arguing he “should have done more”.
If victory in his first subsequent outing had been his way of exorcising any Ryder Cup demons, the Northern Irishman has just gone from strength to strength this year.
Sandwiched between his CJ Cup victories have been triumphs at the Canadian Open and Tour Championship, as 10 top-10 finishes across 16 PGA Tour events saw McIlroy steadily move up the rankings.
His consistency was exemplified on the biggest stage at the majors, where McIlroy finished no lower than eighth in any of the four events. The only downside was that, despite coming agonizingly close at The Masters and The Open, he could not 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 cast his thoughts back to the Valero Texas Open in April, one of just two occasions all season he missed the cut at an event.
“If someone had told me on the Friday night … I would be World No. 1 by October, I would have asked them what they were smoking because I would not have believed them,” he told reporters.
“It’s been a wild six months. I figured a few things out with my game and I’ve just been on a really good run.
“Everything feels like its come together for me and today was just a continuation of how I’ve felt like I’ve been playing over these last few months.
“Now it’s all about going forward and trying to just keep this going … it’s a lot to process right now but just really proud of myself with how 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.
“This tournament last year was the start of me trying to build myself back up to this point,” he said.
“I had a really rough Ryder Cup … I was outside the top-10 in the world, it’s not a position that I’m used to being in. The steady climb back to the summit of world golf and what it takes: it’s not just me, it’s everyone that’s a part of my team.
“Whenever I think about that, that’s what gets me a little bit choked up and emotional because it’s really cool to be on this journey with other people that you want to be on the journey with.”