Rory McIlroy can return to world number one for the first time since June 2020 at this week’s CJ Cup where he is the defending champion – although he will need help from current leader Scottie Scheffler.
McIlroy needs a top-2 finish and a faltering performance from Scheffler (Rory wins and Scheffler doesn’t finish solo 2nd or in a 2-way tie for 2nd. Rory finishes solo 2nd and Scottie finishes worse than solo 34th.)
But the Holywood native arrives in scintillating form and seems primed to return to the golfing summit for the first time in over two years.
McIlroy has strung together five straight top-8 finishes, including a victory at the Tour Championship, where he gave Scheffler six shots before taking down the reigning Masters champion.
Scheffler has been showing some vulnerability of late and hasn’t played since that harrowing day in East Lake and he carried that slump into the Presidents Cup where he had a disappointing 0-3-1 record.
McIlroy has done everything in 2022 except win a major championship. However, after an indifferent 2020 and 2021 which included a winless season in the former and some underwhelming performances in the majors he has been a resurgent character this year.
It seems inevitable that McIlroy will return to world number one at some point before the year is out and that he will finally win his fifth major, but what has been the key to this resurgence?
There is no doubt Rory plays his best golf when he has a chip on his shoulder, a point to prove.
How did he respond from his 2011 Masters collapse? Obliterated everyone to win the US Open at a canter and he has been in unbelievable form since losing the Open Championship in July.
But the whole year McIlroy has looked back to his best and there is no doubt that the LIV controversy has awoken the beast that some doubted would ever roar again.
Suggestions that golf hasn’t been his number one priority are fair but this year he has played with a sense of purpose, a sense of responsibility, almost as if the world of golf rests on his shoulders and as Tiger fades away he realises he is the man now.
LIV Golf has thrown golf as we know it into turmoil, but it’s given McIlroy the kick up the backside he needed. He looked such a disinterested and disconsolate figure when golf restarted after lockdown but over the last twelve months, he has been up there with Scheffler and on form has overtaken him since the summer.
It just seems like he really wants to beat everyone around him and prove a point. Particularly when the LIV rebels dip their toes back into Europe it really gnaws at him and infuriates him. I love it. He needs it. If the LIV players are allowed into the major championships in 2023 that can only be good for his psyche.
He’s been there before too, in terms of wanting to prove a point. Beating Brooks Koepka at East Lake in 2019 silenced a few critics but ultimately proved a false dawn given what followed but this version of Rory is here for the long haul. He is the real deal again. I just wish he was in the Taylormade room when Dustin Johnson decided he was going to work on his wedge game five years earlier!
In many ways the 33-year-old is embarking on a third career. We’ve had the all-conquering youngster, the next big thing, the new superstar. Then we had the man who was no longer the ace in the pack and just a regular jack.
The phrase ‘when Rory plays his best golf, he is the best in the world’ had become redundant with the emergence of the Spieth’s, Rahm’s, Thomas’s and the Scheffler’s.
Now we have Rory McIlroy the chaser. it’s as if winning a fifth major would be like winning his first all over again and it could open the floodgates for more.
When McIlroy plays his best golf, he is the best and that was proven in East Lake.
So, what is the challenge that faces him this week? A complete contrast from when he held off Collin Morikawa to win this event last year.
The four-time major winner must tame a hard and fast-running Congaree this week, having claimed the CJ Cup when it was played at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas in October last year where his considerable advantage off the tee paid dividends with some low scoring.
Those who are avid run of the mill PGA Tour event followers might recognise Congaree from the Palmetto Championship.
Normally a vulnerable golf course with wide fairways and favourable greens, now it’s going to play more like an Open Championship and prove a far tougher examination than it was for the Palmetto Championship, won by Garrick Higgo.
Amazingly McIlroy’s 31st worldwide win could prove to be his first in single digits under par.