This week in golf: McIlroy takes top spot, it’s LIV Golf Team Championship time, and LPGA prepares for return to Japan

Sports

Just over a year ago, Rory McIlroy was at a low point.

The four-time major champion was moved to tears at the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, after he went 1-3 and could do nothing to stop the U.S. team’s historic 19-9 beatdown of the Europeans. At one point in 2021, McIlroy hadn’t won in 18 months and was ranked 15th in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Since picking up that elusive victory at the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship, McIlroy has won four more times, including the 2022 Tour Championship at East Lake in August. On Sunday, he won the CJ Cup for the second straight season, this time at Congaree Golf Club in Ridgeland, South Carolina.

The latest win moved McIlroy back to No. 1 in the world for the ninth time in his career. It’s the first time he’s held the top spot since July 2020 and comes 10 years after he first held the position.

“This tournament last year was the start of me trying to build myself back up to this point,” McIlroy said on Sunday. “I had a really rough Ryder Cup. I think I was outside the top 10 in the world — it’s not a position that I’m used to being in.”

A year ago, LIV Golf was only a whisper on PGA Tour driving ranges and practice greens. This week, the upstart circuit being fronted by two-time Open Championship winner Greg Norman takes center stage in professional men’s golf with its season-ending $50 million team championship, which tees off Friday at Trump National Doral Miami.

For much of the year, McIlroy has been the voice and face of the PGA Tour during its battle with LIV Golf for the top players in the world. When McIlroy was asked by reporters last week how long he’d like to be the No. 1 player in the world, he already had an answer.

“332 [weeks],” McIlroy said. “I don’t know if I can, but that’s a number in my head.”

That would be second most in men’s golf history — one week more than Norman, who is second only to Tiger Woods‘ record of 683.

Here’s what to watch in professional golf this week:

What’s next on the PGA Tour?

Butterfield Bermuda Championship
When: Thursday-Sunday
Where: Port Royal Golf Course, Southampton Parish, Bermuda
Defending champion: Lucas Herbert
Purse: $6.5 million

Three storylines to watch:

PGA Tour goes to Bermuda: After having a star-studded field at the CJ Cup, it’s a watered-down one in Bermuda, with many of the tour’s top players taking the week off. The field includes a few recent PGA Tour winners such as Garrick Higgo, Seamus Power and Chad Ramey. Other notables in the field are European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald, Denny McCarthy and DP World Tour winner Adrian Meronk, who is playing on a sponsor exemption. The winner still gets a full 500 FedEx Cup points.

Big John is back: Two-time major champion John Daly is scheduled to play in Bermuda on a sponsor exemption. Daly, 56, had four top-25s in 18 starts in PGA Tour Champions events this season. His best finish was a tie for eighth at the American Family Insurance Championship in June.

Daly tied for 19th at the Constellation Furyk & Friends in early October, less than two weeks after he underwent a platelet-rich plasma procedure on his left knee. He missed the cut at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills and the Open Championship at St. Andrews. It would be his first start in a regular Tour event since missing the cut at the Barracuda Championship in August 2021.

Masters invitation up for grabs: The Masters is still a little more than five months away, but an invitation to Augusta National Golf Club will be on the line at this week’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship at Amata Spring Country Club in Chonburi, Thailand. In fact, the winner after four rounds will also receive exemptions to the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and the British Amateur next year. Thailand’s Ratchanon “TK” Chantanauwat is the highest-ranked amateur in the field at No. 12 in the world. In April, he beat budding PGA Tour star Tom Kim by 2 shots to win the Asian Mixed Cup at age 15 years, one month and six days, making him the youngest-ever winner of a tournament recognized by the Official World Golf Ranking. Wenyi Ding, 17, was the first Chinese man to win a USGA championship when he won the U.S. Junior Amateur at Bandon Dunes in July. Ding is 15th in the world amateur rankings. Arizona State’s James Leow, from Singapore, helped the Sun Devils finish second at the NCAA Division I championship. Leow also was on the winning Palmer Cup team in Switzerland. Hideki Matsuyama, the 2021 Masters champion, won the APAC twice in 2010 and 2011.

What’s next in LIV Golf?

LIV Golf Team Championship
When: Friday-Sunday
Where: Trump National Doral Miami
Purse: $50 million

Three storylines to watch:

Go team!: The season-ending $50 million team championship at the Blue Monster will kick off with a news conference at 9 a.m. ET on Wednesday, in which the captains of teams seeded fifth to 12th will choose their opponents for Friday’s singles and foursomes matches, with the highest-seeded teams selecting first. Teams seeded first to fourth will receive a first-round bye. Each match Friday will consist of two singles matches and one alternate-shot (foursomes) match. Matches will be played until there is a winner; there will be no ties. The four teams earning two points will advance to Saturday’s semifinals.

The weekend format: After Friday’s matches, captains of the teams seeded first to fourth and the four that advanced will choose their opponents for Saturday’s semifinals. It will be the same format as in Friday’s matches. The four teams that earn two points will advance to Sunday’s team championship, in which 16 players will compete in one shotgun-start round of stroke play. Players will compete in twosomes, team captains will play together, and each score will count towards a team’s cumulative score. The team with the lowest cumulative score after 18 holes will evenly split $16 million. Second-place gets $10 million, and third place takes home $8 million. Dustin Johnson‘s 4 Aces GC is the top seed with 152 points, followed by Bryson DeChambeau‘s Crushers (96 points), Sergio Garcia‘s Fireballs (93) and Louis Oosthuizen‘s Stinger GC (72).

Trump playing in the pro-am: Like he did at the LIV Golf Bedminster event in New Jersey in July, former U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to play in Thursday’s pro-am at the golf course he owns. Trump played with Brooks Koepka and Johnson at Bedminster. During that tournament, Trump was criticized by survivors and family members of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for hosting a LIV Golf event so close to New York. LIV Golf is financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

“Well, I’ve known these people for a long time in Saudi Arabia, and they’ve been friends of mine for a long time,” Trump told ESPN at Bedminster. “They’ve invested in many American companies, they own big percentages of many, many American companies, and frankly what they’re doing for golf is so great, what they’re doing for the players is so great. The salaries are going to go way up. The PGA was not loved by a lot of the players, as you know, for a long time. Now they have an alternative and nobody would have ever known there was going to be a gold rush like this.”

What’s next on the LPGA Tour?

TOTO Japan Classic
When: Nov. 3-6
Where: Seta Golf Course, Shiga, Japan
Defending champion: Ai Suzuki (in 2019)
Purse: $2 million

Three storylines to watch:

A brief hiatus: The LPGA and Swinging Skirts Golf Foundation announced in August that the Taiwan Swinging Skirts LPGA, scheduled for this week, would be canceled for the third straight season due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. LPGA players will get a week off before closing out their Asian swing at the TOTO Japan Classic. It will be the LPGA’s first time back in Japan in three years. The Japan Classic remained part of the JLPGA’s regular season in each of the past two seasons, with South Korea’s Jiyai Shin winning in 2020 and Japan’s Ayaka Furue in 2021.

Ko widens lead: After picking up her 18th career victory in her native South Korea at the BMW Ladies Championship on Sunday, Lydia Ko has opened a 420-point lead over 19-year-old Atthaya Thitikul in the Race to CME Globe points standings. Australia’s Minjee Lee is 527 points behind; Canada’s Brooke M. Henderson is 546 points back. There are just two events left before the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, scheduled for Nov. 17-20 in Naples, Florida. After playing in Japan, the LPGA returns to the U.S. for the Pelican Women’s Championship in Belleair, Florida, from Nov. 10-13. The top 60 players (and ties) in the points standings will advance to the CME Group Tour Championship.

Thitikul closes in on rookie honor: With a sixth-place finish at the BMW Ladies Championship, Thitikul has a 230-point advantage over South Korea’s Hye-Jin Choi in the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year points standings. Choi narrowed the gap with a tie for third in her native South Korea, so it remains a close race with three events to play. Thitikul, from Thailand, shot a 9-under 63 in the first round at the BMW Ladies Championship, her third round of 63 or lower in LPGA events since mid-May.

Inside the Official World Golf Ranking

With his victory at Congaree Golf Club, McIlroy became the No. 1 player in the world for the ninth time in his career. He supplanted Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, who moved to No. 1 after winning the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in May and stayed there until now. Here’s a look at who moved up and down in the world rankings this week:

Moving up

Tommy Fleetwood
Current rank: 24
Previous rank: 31

It had been a difficult couple of years for the Englishman, but he showed vast improvement with a tie for fifth at the PGA Championship. He backed it up with ties for fourth at the Genesis Scottish Open, Open Championship and then the CJ Cup in South Carolina. He ranks third in shots gained: total (2.965) in four starts this season.

K.H. Lee
Current rank: 33
Previous rank: 42

A two-time winner of the AT&T Byron Nelson, Lee’s third-place finish at Congaree moved him up nine spots in the world ranking. It is the highest ranking of his career.

Kurt Kitayama
Current rank: 41
Previous rank: 56

The former UNLV star is still searching for his first PGA Tour victory, but a second-place finish in the CJ Cup collected him more than $1.1 million. Not a bad consolation prize. He was runner-up in the Mexico Open at Vidanta and Scottish Open last season. It’s the best world ranking of his career.

Patrick Reed
Current rank: 57
Previous rank: 59

Not all LIV Golf players are moving down in the world rankings. Reed moved up two spots this week. He made one start on the Asian Tour and two starts on the DP World Tour (tying for fifth at the BMW PGA Championship), in addition to his LIV events, in which he’s not receiving world-ranking points. He was 25th in the world at the end of 2021.

Taylor Montgomery
Current rank: 70
Previous rank: 74

The PGA Tour rookie remained red-hot with a fourth straight top-15 in as many starts this season. He was solo third at the Fortinet Championship, tied for ninth at the Sanderson Farms Championship, tied for 15th at the Shriners Children’s Open and tied for 13th at the CJ Cup.

Moving down

Sergio Garcia
Current ranking: 86
Previous ranking: 83

The Spaniard’s ranking has taken a beating since he joined LIV Golf. Once ranked No. 2 in the world, the 2017 Masters champion hasn’t been ranked this low since he was 149th in July, 1999.

Matthew Wolff

Current ranking: 136
Previous ranking: 134

Another LIV golfer, Wolff was ranked 12th in the world and was 30th at the end of 2021. He hasn’t collected OWGR points since his last PGA Tour start at the Travelers Championship.

Francesco Molinari

Current ranking: 153
Previous ranking: 148

Molinari’s game collapsed in the second half of 2019 after he squandered a final-round lead at the Masters, and he has struggled to regain consistent form ever since. A tie for 15th at The Open and tie for ninth at the BMW PGA Championship were encouraging signs. He’d probably like nothing more than to return to the European Ryder Cup team in his native Italy.

Webb Simpson

Current ranking: 99
Previous ranking: 98

He was the hottest player on the planet at the start of 2020, winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open and RBC Heritage. Last season, he had just one top-10 in 20 starts.

Zach Johnson

Current ranking: 369
Previous ranking: 359

Johnson, a two-time major champion and U.S. captain for next year’s Ryder Cup in Rome, made the cut in 10 of 23 starts on tour last year.

On the record

It has been quite a few weeks for Willie Mack III. On Oct. 12, he won a three-man playoff to claim the Butterfield Bermuda APGA Championship at Port Royal Golf Course in Bermuda. On Friday, Mack earned a Korn Ferry Tour card for the first time by surviving the Second Stage of Q-School. On Tuesday, Mack is scheduled to fly to Bermuda to make his sixth start in a PGA Tour event; he was awarded a sponsor exemption after winning the APGA event there. Mack talked to ESPN on Monday about his incredible journey.

Q: What did it mean to you, after so long, to finally get a Korn Ferry Tour card?

A: There were a lot of emotions, especially after talking to my dad on the phone. I had my mom and step dad, brother and sister and my girlfriend there, so it was pretty good to have those people there to support me all week. It’s been a long time coming.

Q: You mentioned your father. He was paying two mortgages at one point to ensure that you could play at a high school with a better golf team. How important were his sacrifices to your career development?

A: I didn’t know about the houses until later on. He did some things that I didn’t even know were going on. I kind of have to give him all the credit. He sacrificed a lot, including his personal time, to make sure I had what I needed to get to tournaments. As a kid, you really don’t understand until you get older what your parents actually do for you without you knowing.

Q: Tiger Woods gave you a sponsor exemption to play in the Genesis Invitational in February 2021. What did it mean to you to meet him?

A: That was a dream come true. I missed the cut, but being able to have lunch with Tiger for an hour and a half was something I’ll never forget. It made that missed cut a little bit better.

Q: How much did Tiger inspire you to play golf?

A: My dad and I were flipping through the channels one Sunday watching football, and we saw Tiger and stopped and watched. I got hooked on golf from there. I got some little plastic balls and hit them in the backyard and living room.

Q: How important has the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour [which has a mission to bring greater diversity to golf by developing African-American players and other minorities] been to your success in golf?

A: I started playing as a pro around the time that tour started. The first year, I think it only had two events. Over the years, it put on more events for more money, and it was nice to be able to play in the APGA events in between the bigger events I was playing. The last couple of years, it’s been really good with prize money, so that definitely has helped out. [Advocates CEO Kenneth Bentley] was able to help me get a sponsorship with Farmers Insurance, which definitely helped out a lot.

Q: Is it true that you were once sleeping out of your car in between tournaments?

A: The year I turned pro was the last year you could go straight to the PGA Tour from Q-School. I made it to the Second Stage and missed going to the finals by 2 strokes. After that, out of the next three years, I probably slept in and out of my car for a year and a half. I was on the road, trying to make something happen.

Q: At age 34, do you think you’re still developing as a player?

A: Definitely. If you look at the PGA Tour, there are a lot of guys in their 40s who are still playing well. I think golf is a sport where confidence and experience are everything. I’m a better golfer than I was last year. I think I still have a lot in the tank.

Q: What are your goals going forward?

A: I definitely want to play well this week. I want to play well at finals and get some good Korn Ferry Tour starts. Hopefully, I’ll play well on the Korn Ferry Tour and be on the PGA Tour next year.

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