“Conversations with Champions presented by Sentry” is a weekly series from Golfweek. This week: Rory McIlroy, winner of the 2022 CJ Cup in South Carolina.
Win No. 23 meant a return to No. 1 for Rory McIlroy.
Despite a bogey-bogey finish, McIlroy held off Kurt Kitayama and the rest of the field at the 2022 CJ Cup in South Carolina for his 23rd PGA Tour victory. He’s 28th on the all-time PGA Tour wins list, one back of Gary Player and Dustin Johnson.
On Monday, McIlroy returned to the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking, supplanting Scottie Scheffler. Cameron Smith slipped one spot to No. 3. McIlroy is No. 1 for the ninth time in his career spanning a total of 106 weeks.
He also defended his title at the CJ Cup, held a year ago in Las Vegas, and has at least one victory in each of the last six Tour seasons.
Here’s what McIlroy said after his win Sunday.
Q: This looked to be anybody’s tournament until you went birdie, birdie, birdie on 14, 15 and 16. What were you able to do in that stretch either mechanically, strategically or mentally to separate and ultimately win?
RM: Yeah, as you said, it was a bit of a — there was sort of four of us in it the whole day and I think the birdie on 14 was the real turning point for me. It’s a really tough par 3, to make 2 there felt like I picked up at least a shot and a half on the field. And then knowing 15 was birdie-able, getting that up and down out of the bunker, and 16 was a bit of a bonus to give myself a cushion, which ultimately I needed over the last two holes. Yeah, it feels great. It feels great to go out there, go out there with a lead, shoot a great score, play really well and get the win. It’s an awesome way to start the season, I guess, and obviously just a continuation of how I feel like I’ve been playing over the last few months.
Q: For the ninth time in your career, you’re No. 1 in the world once again, first time since July of 2020. You said since the summer of 2020 that life’s been an adventure for you on and off the golf course. That being said, how meaningful is it for you to be back on top of the golf world?
RM: Yeah, it means a lot. I’ve worked so hard over the last 12 months to get myself back to this place. 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 there and I play with that joy, it’s definitely showed over these last 12 months. Yeah, it feels awesome. I’m looking forward to celebrating with my team tonight and the next couple of weeks because I think it’s a big achievement. I’m really proud of myself right now and I want to go and enjoy this.
Q: What do you enjoy more about the game now?
RM: I think just the journey of trying to get the best out of myself. I think that’s the satisfying thing. I never feel like I’ve figured this game out, I don’t think I ever will figure it out, but every day I wake up trying to get closer.
Q: What’s going through your mind right now?
RM: 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 because I would not have believed them. Yeah, it’s just 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 sort of feels like it’s came together for me and today was just a continuation of how I 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. Yeah, but it’s amazing. Yeah, you now, it’s a lot to process right now just with everything, but just really proud of myself with how I handled this week knowing what was at stake and really just how I’ve played over these last few months.
“I never feel like I’ve figured this game out. I don’t think I ever will figure it out, but every day I wake up trying to get closer.”
For the love of the game pic.twitter.com/Q3lodU6HXv
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) October 23, 2022
Q: You had a lot at stake today, as you say, and you went out and really seized it, seven birdies on a tough course. How did it feel to win in that type of fashion?
RM: It would have felt better if I had finished 4-4 instead of 5-5. I guess you’re only as good as your last hole played. It was amazing. I think I three-putted the eighth hole and then actually felt like it was a really good two-putt on 10, got lucky with my tee shot on 11, was able to make a 4 there, and then from then on in, great recovery shot on 12. The turning point, seemed like there was always four of us today that had a chance to win and I think that the birdie on 14 was really the, that’s what separated, the birdie on 14 was big. And then with me getting up and down out of the bunker on 15 and Kurt not, you know, three-putting from driving the green, those two holes were huge today. I knew I needed to go out there and shoot a good score. I wasn’t, I knew if I went out there and shot even par, it wasn’t going to get it done, but I knew there was opportunities, right? There’s the three par 5s and there’s the two drivable par 4s, so you take care of those and you try and navigate the rest of the way, and if you play solidly enough, hopefully that was going to be good enough and ultimately it was.
Q. Fourteen, club? What club on 14?
RM: Five-iron, like 227.
Q. Two things. Was there any part of you that was sweating when that putt ran about eight feet by on 18?
RM: Yeah, yeah, I said to myself, I had a three-shot cushion on 17 green and I had that 10-footer, 12-footer for par, but I knew that it was still a really, I knew it was still a really important putt because all of a sudden two ahead going up the last, I bogey, Kurt birdies, all of a sudden you’re in a playoff that you don’t want to be in. So that was important. Unfortunately, I missed that, I hit a good putt. Yeah, on 18 when I ran it eight feet by, Kurt had a good look for birdie there and thankfully for me it ran by on the left side, so it made it a little less stressful. But at the same time, like the competitor in me wants to finish the tournament off the right way. I didn’t feel like I quite did that, but it was nice that I gave myself the cushion at least.
Q: Secondly, we’ve asked you about this all week and you’ve mentioned pride quite a bit as it relates to No. 1 and also that you’ve done this many, many times. Your voice still seemed to catch a little bit out there when you were talking to Todd. Are you surprised at all about the emotion that hits you, and why did it, do you think?
RM: You know, this tournament last year was the start of me trying to build myself back up to this point. I had a really rough Ryder Cup, I’ve talked about that at length. I think I was outside the top 10 in the world. It’s not a position that I’m used to being in. I think just the steady climb back up to the summit of world golf and what it takes, right, what it takes. And it’s not just me, it’s everyone that’s a part of my team. It’s not a solo effort. I just think about everyone that’s made a difference in my life obviously not over the last 12 months, but ever. Just thinking over that last 12 months, there’s a lot of people that deserve a lot of the plaudits and I’m the one that sits up here and takes them, but there’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t know about. All of that stuff combined is just as important as what I do out there trying to get these wins. It’s a team effort and I think 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. That’s a really cool part of it.
Q: Like who?
RM: My wife, my daughter, my parents, Harry, Sean, Michael, Ro, Fax, Donal. There’s a ton of people, right? There’s a ton of people who have done a ton of work for me behind the scenes and all of their input culminates in me being able to go out there and try to do these things.
Q: You’ve also spoken about since you were last No. 1 and how much has gone on since then. We think about Poppy’s birth last September, I think, and COVID. Is there more that we’re missing?
RM: Yeah, I think so. I think those sort of life changes, they’re bound to change you, right? I’m not going to be the same person that I was before Poppy was born. All these experiences in some way change you and hopefully, they’ve changed me for the better. So yeah, I’m not saying that you’re missing anything, but I just think that the last two years, a lot has went on in my life and the vast majority of it for the better and it’s great. But the only thing I would say that has been a downer at times has been my golf, but it’s nice to have come out of those little ruts and get to this spot.
Q: A year ago when you kind of drew the line in the sand and decided to take ownership or whatever you were going to do going forward, you were going to own it. Did this feel like a close destination to get back to No. 1 or far away?
RM: Far away. Yeah, it did. I felt, I think the last I was, I think Jason Day, no, Jordan Spieth got to world No. 1 at Whistling Straits in 2015 when Jason Day won and I didn’t get back to world No. 1 until 2020. So it was nearly five years. But it wasn’t five years of — it was just five years of top-5, top-10, but it’s important, right? So anyways, it took me five years to get back in 2020. Then COVID hit, I struggled through COVID. Coming out the back of COVID, sort of struggled a little bit, too. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been world No. 1. Again, yeah, it felt far away and I am surprised that over the last six months I’ve played as well as I have to get back to this spot.
Q: This week with the putter, you looked just very comfortable, knocked down some big putts. How much does that free you up across the board?
RM: Yeah, it’s massive. I feel like with being able to fall back on your putting, it takes pressure off your iron play, it takes pressure off your short game, it takes pressure off your driving. You know that if you can get it up there within 10 feet, whether it’s for birdie or for par, feeling really comfortable with the flat stick, it makes the rest of the game just that little bit easier.
A man on a mission.
3 straight birdies for @McIlroyRory.
He leads by 3 with 2 to play @CJCUPSC. pic.twitter.com/Nr1V8oRufV
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) October 23, 2022
I think last year was the first time ever I finished in the top-20 on Tour in strokes gained: putting and definitely a big part of it and the work that I’ve done with Fax and with Rotella. Again, it’s not like I’m, I’m not handing them the reins of my putting, I’m taking ownership of it, but with their input and that’s really helped.
Q: From experience now, how difficult it is to get back [to No. 1] once you’ve dropped out of that top 10 range, because sometimes being beyond 10 can feel like a lot farther away than it really is. How would you measure that difficulty compared with some of the other things I mentioned?
RM: You’re correct, because the difference between the 15th-ranked player in the world and the 8th-ranked player in the world is tiny, right? It really is. It’s fractions you’re talking about. 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, like being used to the position in the world of golf that I am, it probably made me feel further away than I actually was.
Q: We are not sure that the CJ Cup will go back to Korea or be held in U.S., OK, but will you try to defend your title third time in a row next year?
RM: Yeah, yeah. So next year I’ve got a couple of international events I’m trying to go for three in a row. I’ve got hopefully Canada, I’m going for three in a row there, and then CJ Cup and hopefully at that point it’s back in Korea. I haven’t been in Korea since 2013. Last time I was there I played the Korean Open. Yeah, it will have been 10 years by the time next year comes around. Hopefully, I can defend the title in Korea.
Q: Just curious to get your thoughts on how Kurt kind of hung in there and just kept, he didn’t give in a whole lot today.
RM: No, not at all. Great player. I’ve played a little bit with him, obviously seen him quite a bit over in Europe. He travels, he plays all over the place. I think he’s playing Mayakoba, he was telling me, and then he’s going to play Dubai in a few weeks’ time. Kurt is back and forth between Europe and the States a lot. Yeah, this was a great week for him. He hung in there, as you said, the entire day. A couple of putts just slid by on him coming down the stretch and that was really the difference. Yeah, a really solid player. Yeah, showed a lot out there.
Q: You mentioned the Valero Texas Open. I know you missed the cut there. I’m just wondering if that was any type of a memory for you in terms of a turning point?
RM: Yeah, I remember. So for whatever reason, couldn’t get out of there on Friday night so I had to wait till Saturday morning to get back to Florida. That JW Marriott there in San Antonio is massive. I guess there was some party on Friday night and I was feeling pretty bad, missed the cut. 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. I don’t know why that sticks out, but I think there was a couple of things that happened that week. I changed my golf ball the following week and that definitely helped get me on this path. I played a new golf ball at Augusta and that was really the turning point to sort of turn the year around.
Q: Three wins this year. Do any of them stand out as more significant based on any other type of meaning that we might not see.
RM: I think they’re all sort of different. Battling with J.T. and Tony in Canada was a lot of fun, great atmosphere, needed to pull some good shots out at the end. Battling with Scottie and then K.H. was actually up there in Tour Championship as well. Yeah, I mean, all three wins I’ve had to go out there and win them, right? I shot 62 to win in Canada, I shot 66 at Tour Championship and then went out with a lead today and shot 4 under to win. I think that’s been the most satisfying thing. I’ve put myself in position all those three times and went out there and got the job done and did what I needed to. They’re great strides and great steps in the right direction.