LA JOLLA, Calif. — There are at least five players with legitimate claims to being the best golfer on Earth at the moment. The almighty algorithm says it’s Brooks Koepka, who has held the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking since May and is finally back from a left knee injury. Justin Thomas should be heard as well, with three wins in his last eight starts. Depending on how you rate the competition on the European Tour, you could make an argument for Jon Rahm. And don’t forget about that Tiger Woods fellow, who last time we saw him looked every bit a threat to rip off another dominant stretch.
The strongest case of all, however, might belong to Rory McIlroy. He’s coming off a season that included four victories, a FedEx Cup title, the PGA Tour Player of the Year award, top 10s in 17 of his 25 starts and the best strokes gained/overall average since 2009. All that, but he still hasn’t done enough to make his supremacy official by overtaking Koepka.
That could change at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open. With a victory at Torrey Pines, McIlroy can reclaim the No. 1 ranking in the world, a spot he’s held for 95 weeks but not since September 2015.
“It’s been a goal of mine for a while,” McIlroy told Golf Digest on Tuesday. “Winning four times last year, I closed the gap a little. There was a point in the middle of last year where I was, like, four points behind Brooks. And then, once I won the Tour Championship and then in China [WGC-HSBC Champions], I kind of saw that gap closing. Then it sort of became, ‘Huh, I’m actually close.’ ”
Certainly Koepka's injury helped narrow that gap. The four-time major winner returned from a three-month absence at last week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, finishing T-34 in the European Tour event, and will tee it up next at the Saudi International. Should he play well, there's a chance he and McIlroy could pass the No. 1 ranking between each other, just as Koepka, Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson did in the first half of 2019.
“It’s a very volatile system,” McIlroy said. “It can move up and down very quickly, and I didn’t know I was going to get a chance this early.”
This early in the year, yes, but also this early in his process. After tying for fourth in November at the European Tour’s year-end event in Dubai, McIlroy did not touch a club for six weeks. No playing, no practice, no nothing. The closest he got to golf was watching the Presidents Cup, which he said he found extremely compelling despite hardly ever watching it in years past.
“I’ve got cuts on my hand from coming back,” he said with a laugh, pointing at blisters on his left hand to show that returning to action shocked his body a bit.
Assuming that six-week hiatus started right after Dubai, McIlroy has had roughly two weeks to prepare for the Farmers, where he’ll start his competitive year for the second straight year. McIlroy finished T-5 in his first-ever appearance at Torrey Pines last year, the second in a streak of six consecutive top-five finishes to start 2019, culminating in a victory at the Players Championship.
In turn, McIlroy seemed primed for a fruitful major-championship season and entered the 2019 Masters as something of a clear favorite, but it wasn’t to be—at Augusta, or at the other three. He finished T-21 at Augusta, manufactured top 10s at the PGA and U.S. Open without ever being a factor, then had one of the more memorable missed cuts in golf history with a 79-64 see-saw at Royal Portrush in his home-game Open Championship, missing the weekend by a stroke.
McIlroy finished the year with a flourish, staring down Koepka to win the Tour Championship and adding yet another W at the WGC-HSBC Champions. Which brings him here, with a chance to reach the pinnacle of his sport for the eighth time. But is there really a difference between being No. 1 and No. 2? Does being the top-ranked player in the world feel different than being the second-ranked player in the world?
“At the start, it does,” McIlroy said. “Maybe not even the first time you get there, but maybe the next time you get to it again.
“We all have egos out here. It is what it is. It’s a very selfish game. But I think once you get used to the position—Brooks has been No. 1 for a while, and DJ before that. I don’t think they rolled up to events thinking that way.
“But it’s a huge achievement. To be able to say you’ve held that spot for any amount of time in your career is huge. So yeah, would be great to get back there. But I’m coming out after a six-week break of not hitting any shots.”
“Look, it’s on the radar. If it doesn’t happen this week, I’ll have chances in the future.”