Rory McIlroy just did something for the first time since 2009, and he can't be happy about it

August 23, 2021

Rory McIlroy reacts to his shot from a greenside bunker on the eighth hole during the final round of the Northern Trust.

Stacy Revere

Physically, Rory McIlroy is almost unrecognizable to the lad he was at 20 years old. A mop of dark curls spilled out of his cap, framing a still slightly chubby school boy’s face.

Now 32, McIlroy wouldn’t trade the success in that kid’s future—the four major championships won or the 26 titles earned between the PGA Tour and European Tour in the span of 14 years as a professional. A husband and father, the Ulsterman looks the part of a seasoned professional, with a chiseled frame and a bankers haircut.

But on that road come forlorn times and disappointments, too, and McIlroy’s had his share. The lastest signpost marks the passage of time and a reminder that today’s young studs in golf won’t show mercy to their competitive elders. They’ll just nod as they blow by.

McIlroy’s remarkable run among the top 15 in the Official World Golf Ranking came to an end with the conclusion of the weather-delayed Northern Trust on Monday. With a tie for 43rd at seven under, which put him 13 shots behind the tournament’s playoff winner, Tony Finau, McIlroy dropped one spot in the ranking to 16th. And, as noted by golf stats guru Nostafaru, that marks his first time out of the top 15 since reaching that milestone in November 2009, when McIlroy was wrapping up his second full season as a pro.

For perspective on the length of that streak, the top three players at the world in late 2009 were Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker—the latter two now in their 50s. Kenny Perry was in the top 15, as was Jim Furyk, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Padraig Harrington, Geoff Ogilvy and Sean O’Hair. McIlroy was, by far, the youngest.

Of the current top 15 in the world, there are only two players older than McIlroy—Dustin Johnson at 37 and Louis Oosthuizen at 38.

McIroy’s plummet in the rankings is fairly startling. It was only a year and half ago that he once again ascended to top of the world. Early in 2020, McIlroy climbed to No. 1 on the wave of seven straight top-5 finishes. That March—just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the tour—he celebrated 100 weeks total at No. 1, becoming only the third player with that feat since the creation of the OWGR in 1986. How meaningful is that? Woods and Greg Norman are the others in the club.

But after the tour resumed play in June 2020, McIlroy began to struggle and posted only three top-10s over the next 16 starts spanning into ’21. (It should be noted that the trio was impressive—T-8 in the Tour Championship, T-8 in the delayed U.S. Open, and T-5 in the November Masters.) This calendar year, which includes swing-change work, has seen a mixed bag of results, including a victory in May’s Wells Fargo Championship that moved McIlroy into seventh in the OWGR. Of late, a T-4 in the Tokyo Olympics is the bright spot.

The rankings are volatile, of course, and few would expect McIlroy to stay out of the top 15 for long. He could be back in it next week. And he should have plenty of motivation left in '21: He’s now 28th in the FedEx Cup Playoffs standings and another mediocre performance in the BMW Championship Cup this week could knock him out of the big show at East Lake. And that would be another signpost McIlroy does not want to see.