PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIFORNIA | What a convenient bit of timing it is that this week when the calendar year’s first superpower convention takes place at the Genesis Invitational at timeless Riviera Country Club, Rory McIlroy has supplanted Brooks Koepka as the top-ranked golfer in the world, ending a run of 38 consecutive weeks at No. 1 for Koepka.
It happened with all the ceremony of digits turning over on a gas pump because the world ranking, while based on the numbers on the course, is ultimately a mathematical equation that allowed McIlroy to slip from second to first while taking the weekend off as Koepka did.
Suffice to say it involves a 104-week calendar, strength-of-field rankings and something called a divisor to sort out who ranks where these days.
Enough of that, however. Let’s get to the good stuff.
Remember late last season when Koepka was asked about a budding rivalry with McIlroy and he said, in effect, that he doesn’t look in the rearview mirror? Well, now he’s the guy chasing No. 1 even if his deficit is 0.03 points, which sounds tiny but we’ll leave that to the mathematicians and computer programmers.
McIlroy last was No. 1 in 2015, back when Koepka was a just a guy with a ton of potential.
It’s a career goal for virtually every player, no matter how delusional they may be. But once they’ve reached the mountaintop, getting back there tends not to be as important as collecting trophies.
McIlroy never has fallen terribly far, dropping as low as 13th a couple of years ago, but he’s steadily climbed back up the ranking, helped in no small part by the putting work he has done with Brad Faxon, who essentially told McIlroy to just let it happen.
What’s striking about McIlroy’s spot is this: More than one player has said that (once they had attained the No. 1 ranking) getting back to the top after dropping from it never was a priority. It’s a career goal for virtually every player, no matter how delusional they may be. But once they’ve reached the mountaintop, getting back there tends not to be as important as collecting trophies.
McIlroy has hinted at those feelings previously but as he has regained his form, playing brilliantly from the late summer through the end of 2019, his feelings began to change. It’s no small thing that if McIlroy can remain No. 1 for at least two more weeks, he will surpass Nick Faldo as the European with the most weeks at No. 1.
Let’s not mention that it still would leave McIlroy more than four years behind Greg Norman’s time at No. 1 and a little more than 10 years (yes, 10 years) behind what Tiger Woods did.
Stick that in your algorithm and chew on it a while.
When he set his goals for the calendar year, McIlroy said regaining No. 1 was not on the list. Now it’s like he has a bonus check mark.
“My thing is when I set myself goals, I set myself goals like I want to be plus-1 strokes gained approach play,” McIlroy said at the Farmers Insurance Open, where he finished T3 in his only PGA Tour start of 2020. “It’s all about the process, it’s all about the game, it’s all about trying to make improvements. If I do that and I achieve those goals, then hopefully inevitably I get to that position.
“It is a byproduct of playing consistently good golf and I feel like I’ve done that for quite a while now.”
Since the Tour Championship last August, McIlroy and world No. 3 Jon Rahm have been the two best players in the game. If this were a classroom, Koepka would receive an incomplete grade because he was sidelined longer than expected with knee issues; the Genesis Invitational will be his first start in the United States since last October.
Koepka is a cowboy of sorts, a self-assured player whose confidence can come off as cocky, if only because he tends to answer questions with blunt honesty. Nothing wrong with that.
He’s been missed as the early events have unfolded this year. He played with no great result in Saudi Arabia but this feels like the true start to his year and there is every reason to believe he will be one of the two or three favorites when the Masters rolls around in April.
Koepka has talked often about where and how he finds his motivation, attributing a part of his major championship success to the fuel he derives from slights, whether real or perceived. If Koepka needs motivation – and there’s no reason to think he lacks it – all he has to do is look at the world ranking to see McIlroy in front of him.
Don’t forget Rahm. With the right circumstances this weekend, Rahm could leapfrog to No. 1 in the world, a spot he’s never held. That’s how close things have gotten recently.
Back in 2015, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day traded the top spot in the rankings seven times in a 12-week period.
Could something like that happen again?
What matters at the moment is that McIlroy occupies the throne again.
But for how long?
Top photo: Rory McIlroy during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open (Ben Jared, PGA Tour/Getty Images)
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