Rory McIlroy climbs the mountain, four PGA Tour events get a lift, Lydia Ko becomes a dominant force (again!) and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
Rory McIlroy’s voice started to catch.
No, this wasn’t like the Ryder Cup last fall, when he poured out his heart in a teary interview because his game was floundering and he felt lost, because he’d played so poorly at Whistling Straits that he was benched for a session and let down his team, because he’d dropped outside the friendly confines of the top 10 in the world ranking.
That was different. That was a realization. That was McIlroy understanding the dangerous path that had led him astray – and, more importantly, what he then needed to do to rediscover the magic of the past decade. He won a few weeks later, and all of a sudden order had been restored.
McIlroy has spoken often over the past year about that Ryder Cup bump, about how much that disappointment served as a launching point for this next phase of his career. But there was another one, too, this year, even if it wasn’t as profound.
On the eve of the Masters – where he’d be gunning, yet again, for the final leg of the career Grand Slam – McIlroy missed the cut in his final tuneup at the Valero Texas Open. He couldn’t fly home that night, and when he returned to his lonely hotel room, he was informed that it’d be a 2 ½-hour wait for room service.
“I missed the cut, went to bed on an empty stomach and I was just like, Let’s just wake up tomorrow and start again,” he said.
McIlroy has looked like a different player ever since.
Benefitting from a golf-ball change, he roared home at Augusta National with a final-round 64 to finish second and has been on a tear for the past six months. He has as many wins (three) as finishes outside the top 10, and an emphatic back-nine run Sunday at Congaree didn’t just seal his title defense at the CJ Cup – it returned him to No. 1 in the world, leapfrogging Scottie Scheffler, who had held the top spot since late March.
“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," McIlroy said, "I would have asked them what they were smoking, because I would not have believed them.”
And so: the emotion.
On the surface, at least, it didn’t seem like a particularly weighty moment for McIlroy. He’d already spent a total of 107 weeks at No. 1, fourth-most all time. It was the ninth time he’d ascended to the top spot, and the first since July 2020. But much has transpired in his life since then – becoming a father, hauling his game out of a rut, assuming the mantle of top Tour player spokesman in this fractured era – and the significance of the feat hit him during the interview with Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis. The achievement, the work it took to get there, the people around him who made it possible – all of it.
“Just the steady climb back up to the summit of world golf and what it takes, right?” he said. “And it’s not just me – it’s everyone that’s a part of my team. … 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.”
There were two scenarios in play this week that would have seen a change atop the world ranking.
McIlroy chose the simplest route – a victory.
It wasn’t easy, not on an increasingly firm and fast Lowcountry layout at Congaree. But McIlroy broke out of a four-way pack with a stellar hour of play on the back nine:
• A 13-footer for birdie on the 227-yard 14th, a difficult par 3 that yielded only five birdies all day;
• An up-and-down birdie from the greenside bunker on the drivable 15th, which proved even more significant when his closest competitor, Kurt Kitayama, three-putted from 40 feet;
• And then the decisive blow: a 20-footer on the 16th, to give McIlroy a three-shot cushion as he played the last two holes. He closed bogey-bogey and still won by a shot.
“It would have felt better if I had finished 4-4 instead of 5-5,” he smiled. “I guess you’re only as good as your last hole played.”
McIlroy signed for a 67, the latest in a series of stellar Sundays when he needed it to win. He took it deep with a 62 to fend off Justin Thomas and Tony Finau in Canada. He fired a 66 at East Lake and got some help from Scheffler to win the FedExCup. And then a fourth consecutive round of 67 or better at Congaree to extend his streak of six consecutive seasons on Tour with at least one victory. Overall, he ranked second on Tour last season in final-round scoring (68.07) – which, of course, makes his sleepy 70 at St. Andrews even more dispiriting. It was the outlier.
As promised, the Tour unveiled its four other elevated events for 2023, with the Phoenix Open, Heritage, Wells Fargo and Travelers stepping up to offer big purses and guaranteed, star-studded fields.
If you’re keeping score at home, that means the top players on Tour next year will show up en masse at:
- Kapalua (Jan. 5-8)
- Phoenix (Feb. 9-12)
- Riviera (Feb. 16-19)
- Bay Hill (March 2-5)
- Players (March 9-12)
- Match Play (March 22-26)
- Masters (April 6-9)
- Heritage (April 13-16)
- Wells Fargo (May 4-7)
- PGA (May 18-21)
- Memorial (June 1-4)
- U.S. Open (June 15-18)
- Travelers (June 22-25)
- The Open (July 20-23)
- St. Jude (Aug. 10-13)
- BMW (Aug. 17-20)
- Tour Championship (Aug. 24-27)
That’s pretty good! And, of course, pretty familiar. That’s basically the slate that the top guys were already playing.
A few takeaways:
• There could be a post-major letdown in Harbour Town and Travelers (especially with the west-to-east travel), but those events already leaned into decompress mode. Players who are truly gassed could always opt to skip the event – they’d just forfeit their PIP bonus. And at least now we don't have the weird dynamic of lost momentum following a major, with the latest major winner not showing up at a Tour event for a month. They're all there, for better or worse.
• The top 20 in the PIP also must add three non-elevated events to their schedule, so Torrey, Colonial and the Scottish should still see bumps in field strength (despite not offering $20 million purses) because of their positioning in the golf calendar.
• As for the losers? The Honda and Valspar are certainly getting pinched in between all of those elevated events in the run-up to the Masters. It’s easy to see the team event at the Zurich taking a hit. Only those desperate for points will give the Rocket Mortgage a look in the heart of the summer. The silver lining for those events, at least, is that the Tour is expected to rotate the elevated-event schedule, meaning those tournaments could be kept in the rotation for future years. It just remains to be seen whether that's enough to appease tournament directors and sponsors. A few events likely need to find a different time slot to be more attractive.
• Ceding the fall to ... someone (LIV, the Euro tour, football) ... is a net win. Force us to miss seeing the stars in action. It'll make the start of the next year that much more compelling.
Lydia Ko had a message Sunday for Atthaya Thitikul: Not today, youngin.
Ko knows what it’s like to be a teen phenom, having won a mind-boggling 14 times on the LPGA before her 20th birthday and ascending to the top spot in the world at 17. Thitikul was hoping to join Ko as the only teenagers to accomplish the feat, but she faded badly with a closing 74 on the last day in South Korea.
Ko, meanwhile, fired a 65 to leave her competition in the dust, notching her second victory of the season and closing in on the Vare Trophy (for the lowest scoring average) for the second consecutive year.
Now 25, Ko has undergone myriad changes both professionally and personally, and even if she doesn’t win at the same historic clip she’s a more complete player now – she leads the Tour in strokes gained and has 11 top-5s in 20 starts.
“I think people underestimate what the level of the LPGA is and what the level of women’s golf is right now,” she said. “I think this is probably one of my best seasons, or the best season I’ve had.”
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
A Salute to Scottie: Scheffler’s reign at the top. For a guy who didn’t have a Tour win as of Feb. 12, Scheffler wore the crown for the past 30 weeks like a seasoned veteran. He joined Ian Woosnam as the only players to win the Masters in their debuts at No. 1, then came within a shot of a playoff at the U.S. Open. Even more disappointing to Scheffler was how he performed down the stretch at the Tour Championship, where he coughed up a six-shot lead after a Sunday 73, and at the Presidents Cup, where he earned just a half-point in four matches. He hasn’t had a win since the Masters (which will undoubtedly lead critics to describe this as just a six-week heater), for which he mostly blamed an ice-cold putter – he benched his gamer and showed an unusual amount of frustration on the greens at Congaree. Strange, but coming off a breakout season, he sure seems like he has a lot to think about now.
On the Precipice: Kurt Kitayama. For the third time in his past 14 starts Kitayama finished runner-up in a Tour event, putting him on the short list of players who appear poised to take the next step in 2023. Though he’s still inconsistent, he’s a proven two-time Euro tour winner who has held his own against better competition and now is up to 41st in the world.
Boss Moves Only: Jon Rahm. The fiery Spaniard was very much in the thick of things at Congaree until back-to-back bad breaks on the back nine – a buried lie in the waste area on 14, then a harsh lip-out for birdie on 15 that doomed his chances. He wound up three back and said that he didn’t have his A-game this week – that he was battling swing thoughts and never would have expected to shoot 14 under. Can’t help but think a huge 2023 is coming.
Pain Is ...: Jin Young Ko. It hasn’t exactly been a lost year for Ko, who still owns a win among a handful of other top-5 finishes, but the second half of the season has been a massive disappointment. She took off two months to nurse a nagging left wrist injury, but in her LPGA return she threw up rounds of 80-79 and then withdrew in the no-cut event – this coming a year after a torrid summer cemented her as the top player on tour. Bummer.
Oh, Sure: Golf Saudi head. Buried at the end of a wildly entertaining and well-reported piece in the New Yorker, Majed Al Sorour expressed his dismay at what he viewed as major prejudice toward the LIV players and suggested that he would simply create his own majors if the lads were denied access. There were so many absurd elements to that individual section (including the premature idea that the majors are aligned with the Tour) but it was yet another example of the Saudis/LIV folks believing that they can simply buy prestige, status and success. That sure doesn’t sound like they want to “coexist” within the current ecosystem, as they’ve often repeated.
Slamming the Door: Yannik Paul. The 28-year-old Euro tour rookie became a first-time winner after he drained this birdie putt from just off the green on the 18th hole at the Mallorca Open. Yannik took advantage of a few late miscues from Marcus Armitage, who played his last three holes in 3 over to give the rest of the field a shot to steal the title.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. Fresh off a 4-1 performance at the Presidents Cup, Thomas never got anything going at Congaree, posting back-to-back over-par rounds in the middle of the event to slump to a tie for 40th. Now his attention will turn to his upcoming nuptials, where (who else?) Jordan Spieth will serve as his best man. Pretty cool.