McIlroy, Trying to Regain No. 1 Ranking, Leads CJ Cup in South Carolina by 1

Second-ranked Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland rode two birdies to the top of the leaderboard.

McIlroy, the defending champion, shot 5-under-par 67 to take a one-stroke lead over fifth-ranked Jon Rahm of Spain, Kurt Kitayama of Chico and UNLV, and K.H. Lee of South Korea in the CJ Cup in South Carolina at Congaree Golf Club in Ridgeland, S.C.

“Yeah, there’s an excitement level of doing something for the first time that I think you’re never going to get back again,” said McIlroy, who can regain the top spot in the World Golf Rankings with a victory. “But again, it’s still something that everyone out here would obviously be very, very proud of.

“It’s been a long journey from when I was No. 1 back in July of 2020. It’s been two years and a bunch of stuff has happened, so I think that …  it might not have the excitement that 2012 did, but it will have as much, if not more meaning because of everything that I sort of went through over the last couple years.

“You know, the ranking will just take care of itself if I do what I want to do. Ultimately, I just want to win this golf tournament, then everything will take care of itself.”

McIlroy, who won this event last year at the Summit Club in Las Vegas for one of his 31 victories as a pro, sank a six-foot eagle putt on the fourth hole, also holed a 32-footer for an eagle at No. 12 while adding three birdies and three bogeys to finish 54 holes at 13-under 200.

Rahm, coming off a victory in his last start in the Acciona Open de Espana for victory No. 15 as a pro, made three bogeys around the turn before carding birdies on three of the last seven holes for a 70, while Kitayama made two early birdies en route to another 70, and Lee, who has won each of the last two seasons on the PGA Tour, collected three birdies on each nine in a 66.

“It was a lot of battle today,” said Rahm, who also finished second in the BMW PGA Tour Championship at Wentworth Golf Club outside London in his recent trip to Europe. “I’m proud of it, very proud of it. I mean, I’m standing on 12th tee, I think I was four back with people looking at par 5s and the tee up on 15, I thought things could get ugly.

“But I just stayed on my own game and tried to make some birdies coming in and put myself in position for tomorrow. I’m going in confident tomorrow. Today was a battle and I’m hoping tomorrow’s a little bit better. It’s going to take a low one as usual. This is the PGA Tour, somebody will come out hot on Sunday, and I’m hoping that’s me.”

Said Kitayama, who was runner-up to Rahm earlier this year in the Mexico Open at Vidanta and has three pro victories but none on the PGA Tour: “You want to play against the best, and it’s a great leaderboard.”

Taylor Moore birdied three of the first four holes and added a 32-footer for birdie on the last to cap a 67 and is three strokes back in a tie for fifth with Aaron Wise of Lake Elsinore, who followed two 66s with a 71, while 20-year-old Tom Kim of South Korea birdied three of the last four holes for a 69 and is one more down in a tie for seventh with Brendon Todd, who made three straight birdies on the front nine in another 69.

Maverick McNealy of Portola Valley and Stanford had three birdies on each nine in a 66 and is five strokes behind in a tie for ninth with Tommy Fleetwood of England, who made four birdies on each nine in another 66, Tom Hoge, who had four birdies on the first 10 holes in a 70, and Lee Hodges, who had four early birdies in another 70.

Ninth-ranked Collin Morikawa of La Canada Flintridge and Stanford birdied three of the first holes on his way to a 68 and is in a tie for 18th that includes 10th-ranked Matt Fitzpatrick of England, the reigning U.S. Open champion who also shot 68, while eight-ranked Justin Thomas, a two-time CJ Cup champion, shot 72 and is in a tie for 47th that includes top-ranked Scottie Scheffler, who struggled to a 74.

Wyndham Clark hit the shot of the day, making a hole in one from 181 yards on his way to a 71 and is tied for 18th.

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