Rory McIlroy’s impressive longevity on full display amid return to Valhalla

On Aug. 3, 2014, with the PGA Championship at Valhalla one week away, world No. 2 Rory McIlroy shot a final-round 66 to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational over world No. 5 Sergio Garcia.

On May 12, 2024, with the PGA Championship at Valhalla one week away, world No. 2 Rory McIlroy shot a final-round 66 to win the Wells Fargo Championship over world No. 4 Xander Schauffele.

In between those two victories, across an entire decade, McIlroy has never exited the top 16 in the Official World Golf Rankings.

When measuring a golfer’s career, longevity of that caliber should not be underrated.

It is one thing to slide into the top 10 of the OWGR. Plenty of golfers have done that. Hell, Alex Noren has done that. So have Brandt Snedeker, Keegan Bradley, David Howell and David Toms. If one reaches the top 10 in the OWGR, he is certainly an excellent golfer.

But what if you basically never leave it for 15 straight years?

McIlroy, who first entered the top 10 at the end of 2009, has rarely ventured south of that mark since (and never south of No. 20). In that sense, Rory stands nearly peerless in the game; the likes of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Viktor Hovland — choosing three tremendously talented peers — have failed to accomplish this feet. (Dustin Johnson put together a 12-year run in the top 25 of the OWGR only to fall out by moving to LIV Golf.)

OWGR

The kind of longevity McIlroy is displaying has contextualized itself in 26 career PGA Tour victories, the latest of which he achieved Sunday at the 2024 Wells Fargo Championship. There are only 15 other golfers who have won that many times (or more) on the PGA Tour with the majority of their winning taking place since World War II. Most of them go by single names, like Rory.

Here’s the next five McIlroy is chasing up the all-time wins leaderboard: Lloyd Mangrum (36), Vijay Singh (34), Jimmy Demaret (31), Gene Littler and Lee Trevino (29).

McIlroy returns to Valhalla among the favorites, just as he was in 2014. Here’s some names that comprised the OWGR top 30 a decade ago at this time: Martin Kaymer, Victor Dubuisson, Zach Johnson, Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez (!).

Here’s another way to put Rory’s run into perspective: Consider how much Scottie Scheffler has been winning over the last few years. Now realize Scheffler (8.3%) is still far behind McIlroy’s career winning PGA Tour winning rate (10.5%). Oh, and again, Rory has been at it for twice as long.

There are a couple reasons McIlroy is discussed in a different context than his peers; a couple were on full display Sunday at Quail Hollow.

The first is when Rory physically proves “you don’t have this gear,” which he this weekend did as Xander Schauffele stood there, mouth agape, eyes rolling into in the back of his head from the battering he took at the hands of an all-timer.

The second is less visually obvious. To play at this level for the length of time McIlroy has succeeded requires (a) extraordinary talent, (b) an unusual work ethic and (c) a love for the game that not everyone is granted. Rory has spillover in all three cups, which is part of the reason so many fans and analysts simply cannot quit enjoying the show.

“I don’t know what’s more unbelievable, winning a PGA Tour event for the fourth time or getting my 26th,” McIlroy said Sunday. “Whenever I sort of hit some of these milestones or do these things, I always think back to, for example, like 20-year-old me playing in this tournament for the first time.

“If I had known back then that this is the way everything was going to pan out, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Yeah, anytime things like this happen, I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that I have the opportunity to do what I do. I was able to play good enough golf today to take advantage of that opportunity.”

It is abnormal for a career to feel historic at its halfway point. Tiger Woods’ certainly did. I’m sure that was the case during Jack Nicklaus’ run, too. For others — even greats like Rory and Phil Mickelson — there’s always something to nitpick, something that could have or should have gone differently.

At this point in McIlroy’s trajectory as a professional, it’s impossible to deny that he is having one of the 15 or 20 best careers in the history of golf. Saying otherwise would be deluding one’s self with fiction vs. reality.

The numbers are the numbers, and the truth is the truth: Rory is he’s headed toward one of two clubs: 30 PGA Tour wins and five major championships or even 40 PGA Tour wins and six major championships.

That’s rare air.

McIlroy currently sitsat 26 PGA Tour wins and four majors. Here are the players he’s chasing for the 30/5 club (golfers in bold are also in the 40/6 club).

Tiger Woods

82

15

Sam Snead

82

7

Jack Nicklaus

73

18

Ben Hogan

64

9

Arnold Palmer

62

7

Byron Nelson

52

5

Walter Hagen

45

11

Phil Mickelson

45

6

Tom Watson

39

8

Gene Sarazen

38

7

Lee Trevino

29

6

Golfers’ careers can be measured in a multitude of ways. The most prominent — and perhaps the most important — is by how many major titles a player claims. So while Rory’s victory at Quail Hollow was certainly relevant, it pales in comparison to what he can accomplish at Valhalla this week.

If McIlroy can win three consecutive events with a major championship at Valhalla as the clincher — for the second time in a decade — it will be the another unusual feat in a career full of them.

Rory has been atypical from the jump. In 2014 at Valhalla, he joined Tiger and Jack as the only golfers in the modern era to win four majors by the age of 25. If he wins again this week — or at any point over the next few years — he will join Woods on a different list. Woods went 11 years between his 2008 U.S. Open and his 2019 Masters, a remarkably long time that few have matched (one of those was Ben Crenshaw, who won the Masters in 1984 and later in 1995.

McIlroy’s career has been among the most uncommon of the last quarter century. To win that much that early and then to follow it with this much consistency — but without an additional major victory — has been simultaneously enjoyable and puzzling. Difficult to sort through and decipher.

“I’ve done everything else there is to do in the game since 2014,” McIlroy said. “The only thing I need to do is get another major. You know, a win like this going into the PGA Championship next week is a good way to prep for that.”

McIlroy still has a level of play so few golfers on the planet can reach, an intangible that is only bequeathed to certain individuals. A lot can be dug out of the dirt; being a star and having a true sense of the moment is innate.

His resume and career trajectory are almost incomprehensibly good. Every victory, even those that do not occur at majors, is a reminder of how long he has been great and how difficult it is for anyone to maintain excellence at that pace.

Sure, McIlroy has recently come up short in monstrous moments at the biggest events. Sure, he has not won a major championship in 10 long years.

But McIlroy proved once again Sunday there are still plenty of chapters left to be written in what has already been one of modern golf’s most storied careers.

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