– The final steps on Rory McIlroy‘s long road back to No. 1 go down on the scorecard as bogeys, which made him laugh. All that mattered Sunday was winning the CJ Cup in South Carolina, and that about made him cry.

McIlroy reclaimed the No. 1 ranking for the ninth time by holding off Kurt Kitayama and enduring a nervous moment at the end with a three-putt bogey that gave him a 4-under 67 and a 1-shot victory.

More than the ranking, it was realizing how far he had come with so much support behind the scenes that made his voice slightly choke with emotion.

“This tournament last year was the start of me trying to build myself back up to this point,” McIlroy said. “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.”

McIlroy went 1-3 in a Ryder Cup loss. He was outside the top 10 for 15 consecutive weeks, the longest stretch of his career since first getting to No. 1 a decade ago. For a player of his caliber, that made him feel further behind than he really was.

“I think just the steady climb back up to the summit of world golf and what it takes,” he said. “And it’s not just me, it’s everyone that’s a part of my team. I just think about everyone that’s made a difference in my life, not over the last 12 months, but ever.”

 

Inside the ropes, it was vintage McIlroy.

Tied with Kitayama with five holes to go at Congaree, McIlroy ran off three straight birdies to seize control. The pivotal run began with a 5-iron from 227 yards to 15 feet on the par-3 14th, only the fifth birdie on the hole in the final round.

“I think that the birdie on 14 was really … that’s what separated … the birdie on 14 was big,” McIlroy said. That was followed by another key moment on the 348-yard 15th hole, where he got up-and-down for birdie and Kitayama three-putted for par from 40 feet.

McIlroy followed with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 16th.

McIlroy, who finished at 17-under 267, won for the 23rd time on the PGA Tour and 31st time worldwide.