Scottie Scheffler returned to No. 1 in the world by winning in Phoenix with Jon Rahm on his heels. A week later, Rahm was back to No. 1 by winning at Riviera in a tense battle with Max Homa.
Now it’s Bay Hill’s turn.
One aspect of these elevated events on the PGA Tour — those are here to stay based on a PGA Tour memo Wednesday outlining the future — is its tendency to bring out the star power in a chase for the $3.6 million prize.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational might be the next chapter in this remarkable tussle at the top of the world ranking. Not since the Official World Golf Ranking began in 1986 have three players traded turns at No. 1 before the calendar turned to March.
“I’m just happy to be in that conversation,” Rory McIlroy said.
He began the year at No. 1, and while he has yet to get into contention in his two PGA Tour starts in 2023, McIlroy did begin his year by winning in Dubai.
All three face various scenarios to stay or get back to No. 1.
“If I was purely a fan of the game and I see what’s going on, especially at the top, I think it’s a pretty cool thing,” McIlroy said.
Rahm is coming off a victory in the Genesis Invitational for his fifth title worldwide in his last nine tournaments. Scheffler ran off four wins in a two-month stretch last year that culminated with his Masters title.
McIlroy hasn’t been too shabby until the last two weeks. That was preceded by eight straight top-10 finishes, three of them victories.
“But like everyone knows, there’s so much parity in our game right now that any given week, any given tournament, someone can pop up and sort of put their hand up and claim to be one of the best players in the world,” McIlroy said.
Odds are whoever that is will have earned it in a big way at Bay Hill.
On three straight holes during the pro-am, Patrick Cantlay — he is lagging behind at a No. 4 in the world — hit approach shots to the green and had trouble finding his pitch mark. That’s more typical on a Sunday than a Wednesday.
Throw in a forecast for strong wind, on a course that is a brute in any conditions, and this figures to be another tough test.
Only 10 players broke par last year, and Scheffler won at 5-under 283.
The field is so strong that the only players missing from the top 50 in the world are the seven players who have been suspended for signing with Saudi-funded LIV Golf.
Rahm is playing at such a level that when asked if he felt anyone could beat him when he was firing on all cylinders, the Spaniard replied, “No.”
That said, he would think most of the top players feel the same way.
“The thing is, you don’t need to be firing on all cylinders to win,” Rahm said.
He recalled a conversation with Tiger Woods in which he asked how many times during his 82 PGA Tour wins did he play his best golf over four days.
The answer was three, tops. Woods has discussed this before, alluding to the 2000 U.S. Open (a 15-shot win at Pebble Beach) and the 2000 British Open (eight-shot win at St. Andrews) and the final 63 holes at the 1997 Masters. Woods shot 40 on the front nine and wound up winning by 12.
“A lot of those Sundays he played his best,” Rahm said. “But the whole week? Very few.”
Scheffler, meanwhile, is trying to make two straight title defenses. His first PGA Tour victory was last year in Phoenix, in a playoff against Cantlay, and he repeated this year.
Next up his Bay Hill.
“I don’t like losing to people and any time you don’t win an event you’re always motivated,” Scheffler said. “Any time you get some really good competition it’s very motivating. I got the one in Phoenix and then Jon went out the next week and beat me by a bunch of shots. So it’s fun to have guys playing at the top of their games.”
McIlroy was asked about Rahm and Scheffler, and he spoke to their consistency. Scheffler didn’t win after the Masters last season, but he lost a playoff at Colonial and finished one shot behind McIlroy at the Tour Championship. Rahm hasn’t finished out of the top 10 since August at the Tour Championship.
He easily could have been talking about himself.
“If it’s not a win, they’re contending,” McIlroy said. “Very rarely have you seen these guys in the past 12 or 18 months outside of the top 10, top 15, top 20. So just that relentless consistency week after week, month after month, building a really great body of work.”
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