Rory McIlroy delivers on promised return to world No. 1 after defending CJ Cup title


When Rory McIlroy won the CJ Cup in 2021, he insisted he was still capable of being the best golfer in the world.

Almost to the day on Sunday, the Northern Irishman emphatically lived up to his claim, defending his crown in South Carolina to reclaim first place for the first time in over two years.

McIlroy carded a final Day 67 to finish 17-under at Congaree Golf Club and earn a one-shot win over Kurt Kitayama, a blistering run of three straight birdies at the range that was ultimately enough to win the four-time major -Winner despite everything to see over the line closing with two bogeys.

Kitayama finished an impressive performance with a bogey-free four-under-67, but the American couldn’t find the yardage he needed to force a playoff on the last six holes.

McIlroy’s 23rd title on the PGA Tour rewarded him with $1.89 million in prize money and enough ranking points to overtake Scottie Scheffler – who finished in 45th place – and reclaim first place for the first time since July 2020.

It’s the ninth time McIlroy, 33, has been at the top of his career, with only Tiger Woods and Greg Norman – both No. 1s 11 times – having managed the feat more times.

Kitayama congratulates McIlroy on his win.

“It means a lot to me, I’ve worked so hard over the last 12 months to get back to this place,” said a clearly emotional McIlroy as he got onto the 18th green.

“I feel like I’m enjoying the game like never before, I absolutely love the game of golf and I think going out and playing with that joy has definitely shown over the last 12 months.

“I’m looking forward to celebrating with my team tonight and over the next few weeks because it’s a great achievement. I’m really proud of myself right now.”

When McIlroy clinched the same title in Las Vegas last October, he did so after a devastating Ryder Cup loss and an underwhelming season by his standards.

Then ranked No. 8 in the world, McIlroy gave a tearful interview after Europe’s historic 19-9 defeat in Whistling Straits, arguing he “should have done more”.

If winning his first straight game was his way of exorcising all Ryder Cup demons, the Northern Irishman has only grown in strength this year.

Between his CJ Cup wins are triumphs at the Canadian Open and Tour Championship as McIlroy steadily climbed the rankings with 10 top-10 finishes at 16 PGA Tour events.

McIlroy has had an outstanding year.

His consistency was evident on the biggest stage of the majors, where McIlroy did not finish below eighth in any of the four events. The only downside was that despite coming excruciatingly close at The Masters and The Open, he failed to seal a win to end his eight-year wait for a fifth Major.

But you’ll find that McIlroy isn’t thinking about near misses this week as he throws his thoughts back to April’s Valero Texas Open, one of only two times all season that he missed the cut at an event.

“If someone had told me on Friday night … I would be world No. 1 by October, I would have asked them what they smoke because I wouldn’t have believed them,” he told reporters.

“It’s been a wild six months. I found out a few things with my game and I just had a really good run.

“It all feels to me like it came together and today was just a continuation of how I’ve been feeling for the past few months.

“Now it’s just a matter of going forward and trying to just keep doing that…it’s a lot to process at the moment but I’m just really proud of myself for how I’ve handled this week because I knew what was at stake .”

McIlroy gave special credit to his team, family and friends for supporting his return to the top.

McIlroy hugs caddy Harry Diamond after his win.

“That tournament last year was the start of my attempt to get back to that point,” he said.

“I’ve had a really tough Ryder Cup… I’ve been outside the top-10 in the world, it’s not a position I’m used to. The steady rise back to the top of world golf and what it takes: it’s not just me, it’s everyone who is part of my team.

“Every time I think about it, it chokes me a bit and gets emotional because it’s really cool to be on this journey with other people that you want to be on the journey with.”