It might feel somewhat unsatisfactory to go to the top of the rankings without playing a tournament, but Rory McIlroy’s return to world number one is no statistical fluke.

 McIlroy is back on top of the world because he is the best player on the planet. The official ranking system does a fine job rating the relative merits of the best players.

No one argued with the formula that confirmed Tiger Woods’ undisputed status during the 683 weeks he has spent as world number one and few, if any, have questioned Brooks Koepka’s right to hold the position for the past 38 weeks.

The 29-year-old Floridian went to the top of the tree with his victory in last May’s PGA Championship. Thereafter though, he has won only one tournament and since that victory in Memphis in July, has secured only one more top-10 finish.

In that period, he took time off because of a debilitating left knee injury, but when questioned last October about his rivalry with McIlroy, said: “I’ve got an open road in front of me, I’m not looking in my rear-view mirror.”

Well if that was the case, Koepka would not have seen the 30-year-old closing in on his status as golf’s top dog.

McIlroy has done it with relentless consistency against decent fields, rather than spectacular wins in the majors. His statistics are extraordinary, particularly since his failure to win any of last year’s big four titles.

After missing the cut in The Open at Royal Portrush in July, he has played 11 tournaments and finished outside the top six only twice.

He won the Tour Championship in September and followed it up with victory in the World Golf Championships event in Shanghai. Indeed, his past four results have been as follows: tied third, first, fourth and tied third.

The most recent of those finishes came in his first event after the Christmas break at Torrey Pines last month. Talk about picking up from where he left off; it was as though he had taken no time off at all.

Yet, for all this success, the Northern Irishman is regarded in some quarters as an underachiever. That has certainly felt the case in the majors, where he has failed to add to the four he had won by the end of 2014.

But to dwell on that apparent anomaly is to ignore the true value of an otherwise extraordinarily consistent career.

McIlroy takes on the best players pretty much everywhere he pitches up and routinely beats the overwhelming majority of them.

In golf, no-one wins tournaments week in, week out. It is not that sort of sport.

McIlroy is seen as a mercurial talent – I’ve written as much on occasion after his failure to contend in the tournaments that matter most. But his persistence and unstinting excellence set him apart.

Since first entering the world’s top 10 at the end of 2009, he has never been lower than 13th in the world rankings. That is astonishing.

Think of the players who have come and gone in that period; Jordan Spieth is now 49th in the world and Jason Day 38th in the standings, both having been world number ones in this time.

It is time to change our view of McIlroy. The cliched outlook is that he is the most naturally talented golfer, but one who is streaky and overly reliant on his putter becoming hot to clinch the big successes.

It is nonsense. Consistent excellence as a touring professional tells the real story of Rory.

One answer in particular stood out in an interview recently published in Ireland’s Sunday Independent.

“The perceptions are amazing,” he told interviewer Paul Kimmage. “I live in Jupiter [Florida] at The Bear’s Club with a lot of other PGA Tour players.

“And there’s two people in that area who practise more than anyone else – Justin Thomas and me. And again, that wouldn’t be the perception, not of me anyway, but that’s the case.”

Thomas is another who knows what it is to be the world’s best player. But right now that accolade sits with McIlroy.

It is the eighth time he has reigned at the top of the world rankings and the first since September 2015. How long he remains there is open to question because the competition is intense.

Koepka remains a big threat, Spain’s Jon Rahm is a coming force at number three, Thomas lies fourth and Masters champion Tiger Woods, ranked eighth, looks capable of being as good as ever whenever he plays these days.

McIlroy faces an immediate test this week in a stacked field at Riviera. Nine of the top 10 are on show for the first big gathering of the world’s best in 2020 with only Webb Simpson, ranked seventh, absent from the Los Angeles tournament.

Returning to the top of the world rankings was one of McIlroy’s key objectives. To stay there, he knows he needs to perform better in the majors where he has been too tentative since claiming his second PGA title in 2014.

“In the five years since Valhalla, I wouldn’t say choked,” he told the Sunday Independent. “I’ve underperformed, especially at the start of those tournaments, but I don’t think I’ve choked.”

McIlroy says he will be bolder at the start of these tournaments and we do not have long to wait to see if he can put this new approach into practice. Less than two months away lies the Masters, where he has another chance to complete the career grand slam.

Were he to succeed, it would cement the status he has just earned back. Regardless, the UK’s top golfer deserves huge respect for the consistency on the world stage that has taken him back to golf’s summit.


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