Rory McIlroy won't chirp back at Brooks Koepka, but he does seem a tad frosty

Ryan Lavner
Golf Channel

“I’m not looking at anyone behind me. I’m No. 1 in the world. I’ve got an open road in front of me – I’m not looking in the rearview mirror.” – Brooks Koepka, to the AFP, Oct. 15, 2019

LOS ANGELES – Four months later, well, the roadway is more congested. Brooks Koepka’s souped-up, blacked-out SUV blew a tire and forced him to the shoulder, allowing McIlroy – steady behind the wheel, hands at 10 and 2 – to safely pass him on the left.

And so, for this week at least, it’s McIlroy who is now setting the pace, nothing but open road ahead.

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“Everyone keeps saying congratulations,” McIlroy said Wednesday at Riviera, “but I said: ‘The work has only started. Staying there is the hard part.’”

This is the eighth time that McIlroy has raced into the top spot in the rankings but the first time since September 2015. The landscape has changed dramatically since then. Justin Thomas arrived on the scene. Tiger Woods returned. Koepka won majors and took no prisoners.

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McIlroy is different, too. More well-rounded. More introspective. The achievement to him is still significant, no doubt, but it doesn’t hold the same meaning as it did earlier in his career. Now it’s a byproduct of sustained good play, a byproduct of doing the right things every day, every week. The boring stuff that, hopefully, eventually, will pay off.

After all, McIlroy’s already had his euphoric moment, in 2012, when he held off a surging Woods down the stretch to win the Honda Classic and seize the No. 1 ranking for the first time. “As long as you do get that experience,” he said, “that’s all you need.”

When he steps onto the tee Thursday morning to start the Genesis Invitational, McIlroy will do so as the world No. 1, the reigning FedExCup champion and 2019 PGA Tour Player of the Year. Of course, Koepka would be quick to point out – as he did last fall – that the accolades are nice, but what McIlroy lacks is another major title, at least since Koepka came on Tour full time in 2015. That dig was factual but piercing. As McIlroy said in October, with a slight grimace: “I didn’t need him to remind me.”

In a sport desperate for a rivalry, McIlroy seems to have little interest in retaliating publicly, even after those biting comments. He said there’s no added satisfaction nipping Koepka. Asked by a reporter about the “fun back and forth” they’ve had over the past few months, McIlroy interjected: “Have we? I feel like it’s been a one-way street.”

But Koepka has done some chirping, right? Again, McIlroy interrupted: “But that’s not my area to comment on. That’s his prerogative.”

Remarks that were chillier than the 45-degree start here.

Alternate shot: Who can have staying power at No. 1?

Perhaps it’s because both players were idle last week, but this latest rankings flip-flop – the first time Koepka has been unseated since May – didn’t feel like a seismic shift or a changing of the guard. Koepka’s been hurt, playing only 12 competitive rounds since September. McIlroy’s been terrific, but not dominant. No. 1 is a status symbol.

“The mathematics add up,” McIlroy said, “that I’m at the top of the list right now.”

Added Koepka: “It’s unrealistic to say that I was going to hold No. 1 forever.”

This week’s Genesis Invitational features nine of the top 10 players in the world, and multiple scenarios for No. 1 are in play. In McIlroy’s rearview mirror is not just Koepka, but also Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson. Even Woods, with a hot two-week stretch, could take over as No. 1. The situation has the makings of an L.A.-level gridlock.

Finally out in front again, McIlroy insisted that he’s not worried about the competition lined up behind him, but rather how he’s functioning.

“Golf isn’t about other people,” he said. “Golf is about yourself and getting the best out of what you have. If you keep doing that and keep that mindset, everything else will fall into place.”

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