Back on top! Rory McIlroy reclaims World No. 1 title with CJ Cup defense

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts to his birdie putt on the 16th green during the final round of the CJ Cup at Congaree Golf Club on October 23, 2022 in Ridgeland, South Carolina.

Rory McIlroy will reclaim the No. 1 ranking after defending his title at the CJ Cup.

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Rory McIlroy has been the hottest golfer on the planet for the past several months. Now, he has the title to back it up.

McIlroy fired a final-round 67 Sunday to successfully defend his title at the CJ Cup, in South Carolina, defeating Kurt Kitayama by one stroke. With the win — McIlroy’s 23rd on Tour — he will reclaim the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time since July 2020.

When asked about ascending back to World No. 1 after his round, McIlroy briefly choked up, saying, “It means a lot. You know, I’ve worked so hard over the last 12 months to get myself back to this to this place. I feel like I’m enjoying the game as much as I ever have.”

McIlroy’s 2021 CJ Cup win came when the event was played in Las Vegas, but he looked just as comfortable at this year’s venue, Congaree Golf Club. McIlroy made 21 birdies for the week, including seven on Sunday, for his fourth win in the past 12 months. This is the second time McIlroy has successfully defended a title on Tour; he won the RBC Candian Open this past season and the previous playing of it in 2019.

McIlroy’s performance for the week was unsurprisingly defined by his prowess off the tee. He led the field both in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee and driving distance at nearly 350 yards a pop.

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To become World No. 1 again this week, McIlroy needed to win and for Scottie Scheffler to finish worse than a one-way tie for second, or to finish solo second and for Scheffler to finish worse than 34th alone. McIlroy took care of business himself while Scheffler, who McIlroy took down to win the FedEx Cup two months ago, finished in a tie for 45th.

When the new ranking is released on Monday, it will represent the ninth time McIlroy has ascended to the world’s top spot.

Kitayama finished second at 16 under for his third runner-up finish in the past year on the PGA Tour. He caught McIlroy with a birdie on nine, but McIlroy pulled away with three straight birdies on 14, 15 and 16 to give him the cushion to bogey the final two holes and still prevail.

“I think the birdie on 14 was the real turning point for me,” McIlroy said. “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 birdiable, 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.”

Thirty-six hole leader Jon Rahm, who began the day the tied with Kitayama and K.H. Lee in a tie for second, one stroke behind McIlroy, claimed the lead alone early on the front nine but failed to mount much of a charge on the back nine. Rahm finished joint fourth with Tommy Fleetwood at 14 under.

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