Rory McIlroy’s decade of enduring greatness is as impressive as it is rare

The week leading up to The Masters 2022 has not been great for Rory McIlroy. His iron play at the Texas Open was poor, and he missed the cut at one point as JJ Spaun went on to win the event at 13-under. It was his last start before the annual pilgrimage to Augusta National to try and win the most elusive championship of his life.

To top it off, after trying and failing to get out of San Antonio Friday night after the cut, McIlroy recalled that room service at his hotel would take 150 minutes.

“I was like, let’s just get up tomorrow and start over,” he said.

At that point in his season, even though Rory was playing quality golf, he had fallen to No. 9 in the world just as Scotty Scheffler was propelling himself to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings. Fast-forward six months, and McIlroy — on the back of a truly inconceivable run after that missed cut — is now beginning. His ninth distinguished reign in first place.

“If someone had told me on Friday night of the Valero Texas Open when I missed the record that I would be the world number one by October, I would have asked them what they smoked because I didn’t believe them,” he said. McIlroy on Sunday after he defended the CJ Cup and reclaimed the top spot from Scheffler after Scotty’s 30-week reign at number one.

Since that day in San Antonio, McIlroy has played 15 worldwide events and finished in the top 5 out of 10 of them, including three of the four grands (the other major finish was still a top 10 finish). He missed a single cut in that time period and won three championships. This likely marked the eighth calendar year that McIlroy won at least the number of championships he missed out on cuts.

How unusual is it to have nine separate periods ranked first in the world? Well, he’s third all-time behind Tiger Woods and Greg Norman (11 each) ahead of Dustin Johnson (seven) and Saif Ballesteros (five).

What is it more Despite this, it’s unusual how much time has passed between when McIlroy became No. 1 (March 2012) and now (10 years and seven months).

The kind of golf you have to play to become number 1 in the world is ephemeral. You have to be outrageously good to outshine all the other top talents in the world, and usually – if OWGR’s history is any indication – this peak only lasts (at most) 1-3 years.

A total of 25 golfers have ever been ranked No. 1 in the world, and 22 of them had no more than four years between their first and last (or most recent) appearance.

Johnson is a good example. It first became #1 in February 2017 and was last seen there in July 2021. This is one of long Run over the world of golf. Johnson is one of the best golfers of the past 15 years, and this four-year relationship with the No. 1 player speaks to his continued greatness over such a long period of time.

Ernie Els is the best example of Al Qaeda. Probably one of the top 20 players of all time, Els was the first to be #1 in June 1997 and the last #1 in June 1998. One year.

The three outliers are of course Woods (who had multiple tasks of at least 250 Straight Weeks at No. 1), Norman and McIlroy. Woods went 17 years between his first and last (most likely last) appearance. Norman has been gone for over 11 years. McIlroy could top that depending on how long he kept the lead this time around.

Perhaps most remarkable of McIlroy’s is that he has not been ranked 16th in the world since November 2009. At no time over the past 13 years have there been more than 15 golfers on the planet who were considered better than him. To illustrate how awful it is to perform at this level, take a look at who was in the top 10 in the world when McIlroy entered.

Few golfers stay in the top ten or top fifteen for that long, and certainly fewer return to the top position so many times over those many years. Although he hasn’t dropped out of the world’s top 16, McIlroy said his return to number one felt a long way off until as recently as a year ago.

“Away? Yes, it did,” said McIlroy. “Jordan Spieth got world number one at Whistling Straits in 2015 when Jason Day won, and I didn’t get back to world number one until 2020. It was only five years out of the top five, top ten, but it counts, it took five years to get back In 2020. Then COVID hit; I struggled through COVID. After I got out of COVID I kind of suffered a little bit too. It’s been a few years since I was a world no. 1.

“Yeah, it just felt out of reach and I’m amazed I’ve played for the last six months as well as I have to come back to this place.”

Despite his longevity – and despite his accomplishments many different times – McIlroy was emotional after his victory on Sunday. He said it was because of who was there on his side in order to get back on top.

“I suspect [what brought about that emotion was] “Just a steady climb back to the top of world golf and what it takes,” he said. Everyone is part of my team. It is not an isolated effort. I just think of everyone who has made a difference in my life, obviously not in the last 12 months but at all. Just thinking about the last 12 months, there’s a lot of people who deserve a lot of praise, and I’m sitting here taking them, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that people don’t know about. All of those things combined are just as important as what I’m doing there in trying to make those gains.

“It’s a team effort, and I think whenever I think about it, it just makes me feel a little suffocated and emotional because it’s really cool to be on this journey with other people that you want to be on this journey with. A really cool part.”

In the end, a level of sustained greatness like this is only achieved by a competitive sociopath or someone who is so deeply in love with the game that he is internally motivated to beat it, no matter how long it takes. All the talents in the world will only matter if you have one (or both) of those qualities. While one can be dubious about McIlroy when it comes to the former, it is impossible to doubt the latter.

“I feel like I’m enjoying the game as much as I ever did,” he said on Sunday. “I absolutely love golf. I think when I go out there and play with that joy, it’s definitely shown over the last 12 months.”

McIlroy added: “A journey of trying to get the best out of myself [is what I enjoy]. This is the sick thing. I never felt like I discovered this game, and I don’t think I ever will, but I wake up every day trying to get closer.”

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