McIlroy’s road back to No. 1 felt longer than it really was

RIDGELAND, S.C. (AP) — Just about everyone was in the mood to celebrate except for Rory McIlroy.

It had been eight years since McIlroy played the week before the Masters, so he decided to skip the Match Play and instead go to the Texas Open to get into a competitive mood going into Augusta National.

Instead, he missed the cut by two shots, and that wasn’t the worst of it. For reasons he can’t recall, McIlroy had to wait until the next morning to get home to Florida. He was staying in a massive hotel on site at the TPC San Antonio.

“I guess there was some party on Friday night and I was feeling pretty bad,” McIlroy said. “Got back up to my hotel room and went to order room service and they said it will be a two-and-a-half hour wait. So I basically missed the cut, went to bed on an empty stomach and I was like, ‘Let’s just wake up tomorrow and start again.’”

Moments like that are what made Sunday so sweet. He seized on his opportunity to return to No. 1 in the world by winning the CJ Cup in South Carolina, completing what he refers to as a “journey” that had multiple starting points and stops along the way.

One of them was the Texas Open. It wasn’t the only cut he missed this year, but he was No. 9 in the world and the road back felt just as long as when he was as low as No. 16 only eight months earlier.

“If someone had told me on the Friday night of the Valero Texas Open when I missed the cut that I would be world No. 1 by October, I would have asked them what they were smoking,” McIlroy said. “It’s just been a wild six months.”

The final stop was more significant than he realized.

McIlroy first reached No. 1 in the world by winning the Honda Classic in 2012, back when his curly locks had no hint of a few gray hairs, two years before Tiger Woods had the first of his five back surgeries.

On Saturday, he spoke on the eve of the final round at Congaree, when he had a one-shot lead, about the excitement level of achieving a goal for the first time that he could never get back again. Still, this might be no less special under the circumstances.

The previous seven times McIlroy had returned to No. 1, he had never been outside the top 10 for so long — 15 consecutive weeks last fall.

He was on top of golf at the end of 2019 when he won the FedEx Cup for the second time and ended the year beating Xander Schauffele in Shanghai in the HSBC Champions. He started 2020 with four consecutive top 5s and had a chance to win them all, playing in either the last group or penultimate group in all of them.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down golf for three months, the fans didn’t return for a year and McIlroy struggled to regain his swagger.

He lost the No. 1 ranking to Jon Rahm at the Memorial in July of 2020. He fell as low as No. 16 a year later and the road back looked longer than it really was.

The starting point was the CJ Cup in Las Vegas a year ago, which at least got him back into the top 10 in the world. In 24 events worldwide, he won four times and had 16 finishes in the top 10.

The CJ Cup in South Carolina was his sixth straight top 10.

Chasing No. 1 is difficult enough. Fall out of the top 10 and it can seem even harder, even though it’s a thin line among the top 20 players.

“It’s fractions you’re talking about,” McIlroy said. “Sometimes you can feel further away than you actually are. But again, that’s the great thing about this game. You’re only a couple of weeks away from feeling really good about yourself and getting some good finishes and getting some momentum on your side.

“It didn’t concern me that I dropped out of the top 10 for a couple of weeks last year, but again, being used to the position in the world of golf that I am, it probably made me feel further away than I actually was.”

Since the world ranking began in April 1986, only three other players have been at No. 1 longer than McIlroy — Woods (683 weeks), Greg Norman (331 weeks) and Dustin Johnson (135 weeks). McIlroy begins his 107th week this year, and the way he’s going, it might stay that way for at least the rest of the year.

McIlroy always says staying at No. 1 can be tougher than getting there. He might make an exception this time. From a bad Ryder Cup to his lowest world ranking since turning 21, from not being able to order room service, this felt like a long time coming.

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