Boy, that Rory McIlroy is a precocious young fella.
The nerve of this kid. First he has the gall to go out and win the U.S. Open by an astounding eight shots at the ripe old age of 22. And now he states that he wants to be the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world?
"I'm not desperate, but it's definitely a goal that I've set for myself," said the current fourth-ranked player. "I feel as if it's very attainable.”
Yes, that kind of talk is indeed brash. Impetuous. Even a little cocky.
And you know what? It’s exactly the type of attitude he should have.
In recent years, when Tiger Woods still had a figure-four leglock on the world ranking pole position, such impudence would have a player ensconced in immediate controversy, his desire met as a direct challenge to Woods’ lengthy tenure atop golf’s mathematically propagated throne.
These days, though, the No. 1 ranking is more attainable than at perhaps any other time during its 25-year existence, with Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer each taking a turn at the top when the tune stopped in golf’s version of musical chairs. In an age of exceeding parity across the major tours, being the best is less about having a great career or even a great year and more about which player has enjoyed a pretty decent couple of weeks.
None of those, however, should serve as the main reason for why McIlroy’s goal of ascending toward that lofty mark is worthy of an extended golf clap.
No, the primary intention is much simpler: It beats the alternative.
If McIlroy instead publicly stated that he didn’t care about being the best, wouldn’t that be more unacceptable than his current objective? Forget for a minute that being No. 1 has more to do with pleasing the computer-generated algorithm than clearly outplaying every other golfer in the world. Other than counting up victory totals, it’s the only way of determining which player is better than his peers – and it should serve as a landmark breakthrough for those who wish to call themselves the best.
Just ask Westwood. Despite never having won a major championship, he took over the No. 1 ranking from Woods on Halloween and held the position for a total of 22 weeks since then. In an interview during his reign, he claimed that because reaching that top spot is more uncommon than hoisting major hardware, he held it in higher esteem.
"People confuse being world No. 1 with winning a major championship," Westwood said. "But winning a major doesn't make you the best player in the world. No, being the best player in the world is all about consistency – just look at the world rankings…. I've been world No. 1 now and I've never won a major so, obviously, I would like to win one. But I wouldn't swap world No. 1 for a major. No way.”
We can argue with Westwood’s priorities, but not the thought process behind them. Self-help authors reside in mansions based on the mantra of advising people to be their best. Even the U.S. Army has employed the motto, “Be All You Can Be.” And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that elite golfers similarly desire to be the best, even if that denotation is derived more via formula than output.
After all, McIlroy should aspire to be the world’s best golfer for the very same reason anyone else should aspire to be the best at whatever their chosen profession may be. A doctor should want to be the best doctor in the world; a plumber should want to be the best plumber in the world; and a coffee barista should want to be the best coffee barista in the world.
Undoubtedly, you’d rather be treated by a doctor who strives to be better than all other competitors at his job than one who is complacent in mediocrity. So it should stand to reason that a golfer with the same emphasis on outdoing his peers should be lauded for his honesty, not chided for hubris.
Phil Mickelson has never lacked for confidence nor congeniality. Last year, the mercurial left-hander had more than a dozen opportunities to become No. 1 in the world, and while he never reached that plateau, he was enlightening on the subject of what it would have meant to him.
“It's every player's goal and intent to strive to be recognized as the No. 1 player in the world relative to the rankings. It's certainly something that I have been striving for but have not achieved yet. And so it would mean a lot to me,” Mickelson explained. “You just strive to be the best that you can be. … And the only way to do that then is again getting back to the big tournaments. You've got to win those.”
Therein lies the thesis of McIlroy’s argument, as well. They come hand-in-hand, those long- and short-term goals. In order to climb the ranking, a player must win; and a player must win in order to climb the ranking.
The reigning U.S. Open champion understands this much. He realizes ascending to No. 1 is the war built on many smaller battles during the journey. And he sounds like a player who has planned out a definitive strategy to achieve that goal.
"It might not be this year, but definitely into next year, I can give myself a very good platform to kick off the season next year if I end the season well,” he said. “So all I want to do is try and get closer to Lee, obviously at No. 2, and then to look at No. 1. Luke's got a little bit of a lead at the minute and it would be nice to get closer to him."
Rory McIlroy has the nerve to say he wants to soon be the world’s No. 1-ranked player. That’s not just tolerable, it’s completely appropriate, because nerve just may be the most important ingredient toward reaching that goal.
Tune into Golf Channel Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET to hear from Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and more at the Open Championship News Conference. Read More
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