Rory McIlroy returns to world No 1 | Golf News

Rory McIlroy’s three PGA Tour wins in 2022 secured him finishing No 1 in the world golf rankings

Statistics show that Rory McIlroy is a better player now that at any other time in his career. 

If you were prepared to go deep into his career statistics you will consistently come across two glaring weaknesses; wedge play and putting. 2022 has seen him improve drastically in both of those categories – in some style as well – as he went on his way to a consistently brilliant year and a well deserved return to World No 1.

Isolating his statistics from the time of The Masters in April to the end of the year, he has been the leading wedge player on the PGA Tour – that’s a simply sensational improvement. Who would have thought that, as over his career he has consistently been ranked outside of the top-50 in the wedge play rankings?

Highlights from day four of the CJ Cup in South Carolina as Rory McIlroy retained the title and moved back to world No 1.

Then you look at his putting, and for the first time ever he is well inside the top 20 best putters on Tour. Again, that’s a category that has seen him miles off the pace compared to others historically, despite many wins and periods of domination.

When you factor in his well documented strength in hitting the golf ball to these huge and important short game improvements, you start forming an opinion that this guy no longer has any weaknesses. Looking at reasons for these huge improvements, I see a combination of the two personnel additions to his team as the outstanding ones.

Official Golf world rankings December 2022

1 Rory McIlroy

2 Scottie Scheffler

3 Cameron Smith

4 Patrick Cantlay

5 Jon Rahm

6 Xander Schauffele

7 Will Zalatoris

8 Justin Thomas

9 Matt Fitzpatrick

10 Viktor Hovland

He is now into his second season working with the ex- PGA Tour player and Sky Sports analyst, Brad Faxon. These two years have shown steady putting improvement for McIlroy, as Brad has led Rory to a more instinctive and reactionary style of putting.

Gone are the days of over analysis and – to borrow the often quoted phase of Gary Player – the “paralysis by analysis”. Instead, there is now a flow to how McIlroy putts both in terms of routine as well as stroke.

Rory McIlroy said it means a lot to finish in Europe’s No 1 spot for the fourth time in his career and feels he’s on a journey to becoming a complete golfer.

In terms of his wedge play it has come down to old fashioned hard work, combined with a change to a less spinning ball and a lower, more driven flight that make it easier to control distance.

When you throw in the addition of Bob Rotella, the well known and hugely respected sports psychologist, who also worked with Brad throughout his career, you get a consistency of ideas and approach that marries into the instinctive style of golf that McIlroy has always played and one that comes naturally to him.

Great golf improvement often follows evolution of something that comes naturally which, in Brad and Bob, Rory has found two kindred spirits in how they see golf being played that resonate with him. There is a skill in picking coaches and its crucial to choose people whose ideas will blend and enhance yours – McIlroy has clearly done that and the results have followed.

After becoming world number one again with victory at the CJ Cup, Sky Sports Golf pundit Rob Lee is confident Rory McIlroy can now go on to win the Masters to complete a career Grand Slam.

When he came second to Scottie Scheffler at The Masters with that run on the last day, it was validation for him to say ‘hey, these new ideas are working and are relatively easy for me to implement’. Confidence comes from validation, so that finish was the start of new proof that he was on the right track and had the right people around. There’s no doubt that the Sunday at Augusta was the springboard to a great summer.

Just a couple of months prior to this second place at The Masters, McIlroy took on a very high risk shot from the 18th fairway in the Dubai Desert Classic and made a bogey on the closing par-five that effectively blew the tournament.

The Open Films: McIlroy 2014

December 31, 2022, 5:00pm

While this swashbuckling style of play makes him compelling to watch, it is not the style of play employed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – players who are in the category of the real greats of the game and a category McIlroy has entered and will ultimately be judged in. Post-Dubai he seemed to take on a more measured approach, akin to theirs, relating to course management and in-play decision making.

Having worked with Rotella myself during my career, I recognised his ideas in McIlroy’s play and interviews. I recall highlighting and giving examples of this new approach in my role with Golf Channel after three rounds at Augusta, whose ideas seemingly underpinning a lot of his golf this year.

Although this approach led to great consistency in the majors it didn’t lead to an all-important win and the irony is that it may well have cost him winning The Open at St Andrews.

Rory McIlroy says he’ll have to ‘keep plugging away’ as his wait for a fifth major continues after surrendering his lead on the final day of The Open.

Entering the last round in a share of the lead, he made no mistakes as he hit all 18 greens in regulation. However, in doing so, he became somewhat over-conservative and didn’t make enough birdies or take enough chances on a course that was yielding lots of birdies to other contenders.

Making mistakes didn’t cost him that title, like Dubai in the year, but it was the over-measured play and lack of spark to make birdies and offset the charging Cameron Smith that cost him. The Open illustrates just how hard it is to get the balance right – hitting all 18 greens with no bogeys was not enough. As the song by Kenny Rogers goes: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em!”

Golf at the top level is a sport where it feels you never get to the finishing line and even when you think you have it, you don’t! You are constantly evolving and learning throughout your career.

2022 has been a great year for McIlroy, with huge strides made, but as well as it’s gone for him there will have been big learnings too. While the measured decision making has proved fruitful in terms of the consistency of top-10 finishes in all four majors, he will have realised the importance of blending this new approach with flashes of that swashbuckling style of his that draws us all in and separates him.

I would also credit Rotella’s influence on how McIlroy has used the narrative around LIV and the central role that he has taken off the course to his advantage. Many of the really greats in sport talk of getting an edge mentally and they talk about cultivating this edge by taking offence to someone or something, or making things personal.

Tiger Woods described Rory McIlroy as a ‘true leader’ following his calls for Greg Norman to quit as LIV Golf CEO to allow a settlement to be negotiated in golf’s civil war.

This edge becomes the fuel that energise them in the battle field of preparation and competition and I believe McIlroy, with the help of Rotella, has cultivated the emergence of LIV in a positive way to help fuel his concentration and focus this year. They have found a way of using LIV psychologically to put himself in a place where he’s out to prove something and chase it, which I think historically has always been his best mindset.

What next for McIlroy?

The next couple of months are really important, as he reenergises and resets himself. He doesn’t want to lose the momentum he enjoyed in 2022. We’ve seen him before after quite extensive breaks come out of the blocks slow and kind of lose the initiative a little bit, then try new things.

It’s key that he keeps his focus of thought and to continue working along the lines we saw in 2022 as its a path that has yielded results and him becoming the best edition of a golfer that I’ve witnessed in his career to date.

It’s also a path I’m convinced where more majors will be added to his already sensational golfing CV.

Watch Rory McIlroy in PGA Tour and DP World Tour action throughout 2023 live

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Stevie Flavio
Film Writer


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