First Cut: Rory McIlroy is closing the gap on Brooks Koepka for top player in the world
McIlroy will likely need some better showings in majors to get the respect he wants
Rory McIlroy's playoff win at the WGC-HSBC Champions on Sunday over Xander Schauffele was the 18th victory of his career and third WGC title. It was also his fourth win of 2019 and an appropriate encore to his 2018-19 PGA Tour Player of the Year performance.
McIlroy is the best golfer in the world right now. Even though the Official World Golf Rankings still say Brooks Koepka is the best golfer in the world, nobody who actually watches golf thinks that.
Since missing the cut at the Open Championship, McIlroy has seven top 10s in nine events, including wins at the Tour Championship and the HSBC Champions last week. Koepka has just two top 10s since that Open, and has a WD and a missed cut mixed in as well. Take their names out of it and the profiles tell a clear-cut story over the last four months.
All of this has to be looked at through two different prisms though. The first is Koepka's recent quote about not having a rivalry with McIlroy. And the second is McIlroy's major drought.
As far as the first goes, McIlroy is about to catch Koepka in the OWGR and all that open road Koepka talked about is going to be filled in by a vehicle filled with some of the most eye-opening post-Tiger-in-his-prime numbers we've seen. McIlroy is about to run down Koepka's No. 1 next to his name and could even take it into the new year.
So I'm interested to see Koepka's comments after that happens.
The second is tougher to reconcile. McIlroy has played in 24 events this year. He's finished in the top-10 18 times. Two of the six in which he didn't were the Masters (T21) and Open (MC). Koepka finished T2 and T4, respectively. I don't really know what to do with this information other than present it and note that it doesn't add up and doesn't make sense. Rory played his worst ("worst") golf when it mattered the most.
When you throw Koepka's recent knee injury and the fact that McIlroy is the controversial reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year and that he nearly doubled Koepka's strokes-gained number from last season, and all of it is even more confusing and difficult to decipher. The one mark in the ledger that can possibly outweigh all the rest is major performance. That's why this conversation is so intoxicating.
It doesn't make sense that reasonable people who watch and cover this stuff could possibly have more confidence in Koepka than McIlroy going into the 2020 major season, and yet that's what's likely going to happen (depending on the severity of Koepka's knee injury). Maybe that says less about McIlroy than it does about Koepka, who has won four of the last 10 major championships he's played.
Regardless, even with how unfathomably good McIlroy has been throughout 2019, there's still that itch in the back of our golf fandom that says, "But ..." or "Wait until ..." Don't get me wrong here, there's nobody I'd rather watch play 72 holes of golf than McIlroy. Nobody I would trust more in a 10,000-hole event. Nobody else I would pick to win the scoring or strokes-gained title on the PGA Tour in 2020.
Everybody else in golf would trade places with Rory McIlroy right now because Rory McIlroy is the best golfer in the world. Now he just needs -- I can't believe I'm saying this -- a (fifth) major to prove it.
X-Man: McIlroy deserving got all of the publicity, but Xander Schauffele deserves some shine. He's turned himself from an opportunistic winner of small-field events into a legit threat as one of the six or seven best golfers in the world. That he played all 73 holes with McIlroy last week and went at him until the very end is impressive, but his run up the strokes-gained rungs globally over the last 18 months is far more eye-opening. He's the most unassuming of the young threats, but that belies his ability. A true assassin.
Tough scene: Bernhard Langer took four strokes out of a bunker in his first playoff hole against Colin Montgomerie at the Invesco QQQ Championship on Sunday. I think you would have received longer odds on that happening at the beginning of last week than on Langer winning by, say, 40 strokes.
Diversity reigns: I was screaming about this for most of the last week, but there were 15 countries represented (and only three Americans) in the top 20 at the WGC-HSBC Champions when it was all said and done. That's an astonishing number and one that signals the health of the game on a global level.
Golf is the dumbest: Brendon Todd did not have a top 10 anywhere in the world since 2015 and came into this calendar year ranked outside the top 2,000 (!!) in the world. So of course he has a second and now a first in the last 90 days after shooting a 63 and a 62 (in the final round!) at the Bermuda Championship over the weekend. The lesson, as always, is that golf is ridiculously stupid.
Stat of the week: Phil Mickelson's way underrated run inside the top 50 in the world came to an end this week as he ranked No. 51, one spot behind Shugo Imahira. This streak, which may or may not go on his golf epitaph, is to me as impressive as somebody winning three major championships in a career.
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