It took Rory McIlroy four and a half years to get back his No. 1 status in the world. It could take only a week to lose it again at this week’s Tiger Woods-hosted convention of golf superpowers in California.
After reclaiming the No. 1 ranking on Monday in a mathematics transfer after all the principle players took last week off, the top spot is on the line at the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles. McIlroy, unseated Brooks Koepka, and red-hot No. 3 Jon Rahm each have a chance to lay official claim to being called “the best golfer in the world” with strong finishes in an elite gathering at Riviera Country Club. The PGA Tour field includes nine of the top 10 and 19 of the top 25 ranked players in the Official World Golf Rankings.
“Everyone keeps saying congratulations but the work’s only started,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “Staying there is the hard part. It’s a calculation based on how you’ve played over the last two years, and I’ve played consistently well and the mathematics adds up that I’m on top of the list right now.”
Koepka could retake the No. 1 spot he’d held for 38 consecutive weeks if he finishes in a two-way tie for seventh or better. Rahm can reach the top ranking for the first time by winning or finishing in no more than a two-way tie for second.
There are eight former world No. 1 players in this week’s field. And while the intrigue of seeing the best players competing at the same time on an classic venue makes a captivating script for golf fans, the three guys vying for the top billing don’t seem to care a whit about how the OWGR math falls out from week to week.
“I’ve already had that euphoric moment in 2012,” McIlroy said of the first time he reached No. 1. “I won the Honda Classic to get to No. 1 in the world, Tiger was coming down the stretch and I was able to hold him off. That to me was the really cool moment and at least I’ve had one of them. As long as you do have that experience, especially the first time you get there, that’s all you need."
“It doesn't matter to me,” Koepka said in Abu Dhabi about the ranking, which he considers a secondary benefit to winning majors. “Yeah, it's nice to be world No. 1. … But the only thing I'm looking forward to is the prep leading up to (the Masters). Am I playing good, am I trending in the right direction going to Augusta.”
Said Rahm when presented with the opportunity for the first time two weeks ago in Phoenix: “Being No. 1 in the world, it's a consequence of good golf. I wouldn't be doing this if my goal wasn't to be the best. It's as simple as that. I tee it up to win every time, I practice to be the best I can be, and hopefully the best I can be takes me to No. 1 at some point.”
McIlroy and Koepka have unwittingly developed into golf’s most interesting rivalry even though they don’t consider it to be such. In October, Koepka dismissed the rivalry chatter with a mic-drop quote: “I've been out here for, what, five years? Rory hasn't won a major since I've been on the PGA Tour.”
McIlroy — who has won 12 times including a Players Championship in those five years — politely responded: “What Brooks said wasn’t wrong. I don’t think he had to remind me that I haven’t won one in a while.”
Wednesday, McIlroy said the relative smack talk “feels like it’s been a one-way.” The two haven’t played in the same event since the Tour Championship at East Lake, where McIlroy won the FedEx Cup and secured the peer vote as the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year despite Koepka’s exemplary major performances. McIlroy has played consistently excellent golf since missing the cut at the last major at Royal Portrush, while Koepka spent three months off nursing and injured knee.
“I keep saying golf isn't about the other people, golf is about yourself and golf's about getting the best out of what you have,” McIlroy said. “If you keep doing that and you keep that mindset, everything else will fall into place.”
But while their simmering rivalry has received most of the attention, the 25-year-old Rahm has thrown his hat into the ring.
Rahm can become only the second Spanish golfer to reach No. 1 in the world and the first since Seve Ballesteros last held the top rank for 20 straight weeks from April to August in 1989.
Rahm has played arguably the most consistently great golf in the world since last summer when he finished third in the US Open. In that span he’s won three times including the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the Race to Dubai crown at the DP World Tour Championship. He’s also finished runner-up four times including the BMW PGA Championship and three weeks ago in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. He’s only finished worse than 13th in one of his last 16 starts with 13 top-10 finishes.
Does he consider himself the best player in the world at the moment?
“I think we all try to show up to a golf tournament thinking we're the better player that week and we can do it and it's just a matter of showing it,” Rahm said last month, admitting that while he’s played better golf in his career he’s currently “playing a little bit smarter maybe.”
McIlroy finished fifth at Riviera last year among a plethora of top-10 finishes around the world. So while winning every week is the goal, consistently contending is the plan.
“If you can go through the bulk of the year and only a handful of guys are beating you most weeks, if that's your sort of average week, then you're doing the right things,” McIlroy said. “I always feel in golf and winning there's quite a randomness to it. Some weeks you get the right bounces, some weeks you don't, but at the end of the year it all sort of evens out. My top-10 rate is something I'm proud of and something that I want to keep going.”
Koepka, who has won as many majors (4) as non-majors on the PGA and European tours combined, has made it abundantly clear where his priorities lie.
“I think we know all four tournaments that I'm looking forward to,” he said in January. “You're remembered by your majors. That's where my focus is, trying to play well there.” That said, being considered “the best” by whatever standard of measurement means something to him.
“If you don't think you're the best player, what's the point?” he said. “Everybody comes here trying to win. That's the goal. If you don't believe you're the best deep down, then there's something wrong with you. You might as well quit.”