He is not going to make it to No. 1 in the world by the end of the year, but Rory McIlroy is doing his best on a promise to do all he can to get there — Brooks Koepka‘s “no rivalry” comments be damned.
And in winning the WGC-HSBC Champions on Sunday in China, McIlroy put an emphatic stamp of success on an Asian Swing of tournaments that could not have gone any better for the PGA Tour.
McIlroy saw a tee shot he thought was headed for the water on the final hole in Shanghai stay dry, then defeated defending champion Xander Schauffele in a sudden-death playoff Sunday to win for the fourth time in 2019 and narrow the gap on Koepka, who is out with a knee issue that could also keep him from the Presidents Cup next month.
“I just wanted to play well until the end of the year to give myself a great platform going into 2020,” said McIlroy, 30, who has one tournament remaining — the season-ending European Tour event in Dubai, the DP World Tour Championship. “Regardless of what happens in Dubai, I’ve already done that. I have a lot of World Ranking points here, FedEx Cup points, and it’s nice to be No. 1 in that very early on in the season and be up there from the start.
“Even though it’s the end of the year, there’s still a lot to play for. At least there is for me, anyway. You need to find things to motivate you, and those are things that motivated me to travel all this way to Asia and play hard the last couple of weeks. And I’m excited about how I’ve played. I’ve got one event left to try and replicate that play that I’ve shown over the last two weeks.”
Including the four wins, McIlroy has 11 top-5s in 2019, with 18 top-10s — his most ever in a calendar year. One of those came last week at the Zozo Championship in Japan, where McIlroy was never really in contention but finished tied for third, 6 shots behind winner Tiger Woods.
The week before, at the CJ Cup in South Korea, Justin Thomas won for the 11th time on the PGA Tour.
Thomas. Woods. McIlroy.
PGA Tour brass in Florida could not have asked for much more from the tour’s foray to Asia, even if most of the heavy lifting for these events occurred overnight for American viewers.
At a time of year when American sports’ fans attention has been focused on the NFL, college football and the MLB playoffs as well as the start of the NBA and NHL seasons, golf managed to squeeze its away into the consciousness, duly helped by Woods’ surprising run in Japan, where he looked like a different player than in recent months in winning his 82nd PGA Tour title to tie the record held by Sam Snead.
While looking at things such as the FedEx Cup standings at this point in the new season always seems like folly, it is worth noting that McIlroy, Thomas and Woods are all inside the top 10, which bodes well for them and the PGA Tour with just two official events left on the fall schedule.
For McIlroy, the victory is simply more validation, on top of the PGA Tour player of the year honor that was voted his way after the conclusion of the 2018-19 season that saw him win the FedEx Cup and its $15 million bonus.
He has finished in the top 10 of 16 of his past 21 starts on the PGA Tour. Were it not for an opening-round 72 in Japan, who knows whether that week might have been different for McIlroy?
One more event on the European Tour, a winter break … and then time to resume that chase of Koepka.
“Four wins this year have been wonderful,” he said. “The Players Championship, the Canadian Open, the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup, the big events. But more than that, it is the consistency that I’m bringing week in, week out. I’m able to … even if I don’t have my best stuff, at least give myself a chance. Even last week in Japan, finding something after a couple of days and go on to produce a high finish.”
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