“And an added bonus, 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 to be back on top of the golfing world?”
At about “the golfing world,” it hit.
Golf Channel reporter Todd Lewis was accurate in his question, asked Sunday on the 18th green at Congaree Golf Club, where Rory McIlroy had just won the CJ Cup. Yes, for the ninth time since turning pro 15 years ago, McIlroy was No. 1 in the world. And yes, even just a day earlier, McIlroy had talked of the journey since he last was.
There was the Covid break, from March to June of 2020.
There was an 18-month victory drought, from his win at the WGC-HSBC Champions in November of 2019, to his win at the Wells Fargo Championship in May of 2021. By no means, is that not a long time, but eight-time world No. 1s and four-time major champions run on different calendars.
There were swing changes, where he tinkered with distance, and swing-coach changes. We won’t go too technical here, but this exchange, after playing with 20-year-old wunderkind Tom Kim on Thursday, tells you all you need to know.
“What were your impressions of Tom and his game?” a reporter asked.
“He didn’t really miss a shot out there,” McIlroy said. “He’s a very, very solid player, plays to his strengths. Makes the same swing at it pretty much every time, like it’s very, very consistent, very steady.
“He was sort of picking my brain a little bit out there about like speed training, and I’m like, no, no, no, no. I think as he gets a little older and maybe a touch stronger, he’ll get that naturally, but I was like, do not go down that path, you’re good the way you are.”
There was last year’s Ryder Cup, where his European team was about to lose, he had gone just 1-3 — with a Saturday benching — and TV folks wanted a reaction to it all. McIlroy gave them one, all right.
“I love being a part of this team, I love my teammates so much, and I should have done more for them this week,” McIlroy, through tears, told Sky Sports. “I’m glad I put a point on the board for Europe today, but I just can’t wait to get another shot at this.
“It is by far the best experience in golf, and I hope the boys and girls watching this today will aspire to play in this event, or the Solheim Cup, because there’s nothing better than being a part of a team, especially with the bond that we have in Europe.
“No matter what happens after this, I’m proud of every one of our players this week. I’m proud of our captain, our vice-captains, and I just wish I could have done a little more for the team. It’s been a tough week.”
There was the birth of his daughter, Poppy, in September of 2020. We joke about “perspective,” and yes, that word is bankrupt, but parenthood changes the lens. Shoot, even on Saturday, when asked, McIlroy went deep on the subject.
“Looking back, what was the best thing about being a father that you weren’t expecting?” a reporter asked.
“I think again it’s going back to those, like, first things, first word, first step,” McIlroy said.
“Yeah, just those first moments are very — and those firsts keep happening, right? It’s not as if they ever stop. There’s firsts all the way, I will imagine all the way into teenage years and beyond and everything else. I think just all those firsts.
“And yeah, looking forward to bath time and looking forward to going into the room in the morning and getting them up out of bed, just all that stuff that you sort of would take for granted.
“But as the one thing I’ve said since I’ve had a child is it gives me much more — I always thought I appreciated my parents, but it gives me much more appreciation for my parents after having kids.”
Back to that question from the beginning now.
On 18 on Sunday, up two over Kurt Kitayama, the nerves had been hitting. McIlroy ran a 40-foot birdie seven feet past, giving Kitayama a shot, though he missed for birdie, too. From there, McIlroy ran his par putt to tap-in range, Kitayama parred, and McIlroy cleaned up for the one-shot win, his 23rd overall on the PGA Tour.
A minute later, Lewis wanted to know about meaning.
At “the golfing world,” it hit.
“Um, it uh.” HIs voice cracked.
McIlroy put his right arm behind his head.
“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.”
“What do you enjoy more about the game now?” Lewis asked.
“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.”
Afterward, in front of a larger group, a reporter asked McIlroy if he was surprised by his emotion.
“You know, this tournament last year was the start of me trying to build myself back up to this point,” he said. “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.”