Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 9, 2020

Morikawa Wins With Shots Worthy Of Roars

From time to time throughout the day, the fog came in. To the poet it may have done so on petite feline paws, but to the golfers walking the fairways of TPC Harding Park, the San Francisco muni turned major championship venue this week, the arrival of the heavy gray layer only added to the already surreal atmosphere at this year’s PGA Championship. The first major of the year, and the only one to be contested during the current PGA Tour season, came at a time when golf’s original 2020 calendar called for all four to already be in the books. After years of planning and months of preparation, no fans were allowed on the property abutting Lake Merced. Instead of the full-throated roars of thousands providing the energy, players had to manufacture their own. But for touring pros used to the stiff challenges of a layout set up for Sunday at a major, nothing was as strange as the generous nature of Harding Park during the final round. One of the early finishers suggested that a 30 could be posted on the back nine before the day ended. That didn’t quite happen, though Jon Rahm and one other golfer came home in 31.

Matthew Wolff needed just one more to play the final nine, and his 32 was finalized with a short birdie putt on the par-4 18th that made the 21-year-old the clubhouse leader at 10-under par for the championship. That number had carried significance since shortly after the final pairing teed off, when 54-hole leader Dustin Johnson opened with a birdie to become the first player at the tournament to get to double-digits under par. As Johnson and playing partner Scottie Scheffler moved to the 2nd hole, there was only one golfer in the top twenty-eight on the leader board who was over par for his round. That his name was Brooks Koepka, the two-time defending champion and popular pick to three-peat, merely added to the day’s weirdness.

With a pair of U.S. Open titles to go with his two PGA Championships, Koepka’s talent is evident, but he can be a hard player to root for. He’s singularly motivated by major titles, with the result that he often seems more a disinterested spectator than an active participant at weekly PGA Tour stops. And while every star athlete has an ego bigger than the R&A’s clubhouse at St. Andrews, Koepka wears his like a badge of honor. In interviews before the tournament he was openly dismissive of virtually the entire field, all but sounding as if his third straight PGA and fifth major was merely a formality. But golf is a humbling game, as much for an elite professional as for the weekend duffer. Koepka bogeyed the 2nd and then lost shots on three straight holes to finish his front nine, dropping him out of contention.

Koepka’s absence from the leader board didn’t make it any less crowded. While Johnson’s early birdie briefly moved him clear of his pursuers, less than thirty minutes later there was a six-way tie at the top, with that many and more players just a shot or two adrift. That early deadlock was at 9-under par, but as the day wore on the number at the top was consistently 10. With a tie at the end of regulation set to be decided by a three-hole, aggregate score playoff, both the CBS Sports announcing team and fans at home had visions of an unwieldy group of five or six or even seven golfers marching down Harding Park’s final three holes, which run out and back a small peninsula with the lake a constant presence on the left.

Given the jumble at the top, a playoff would hardly have been a surprise, but as is usually the case in such circumstances, in the end one golfer separated himself from the pack. It wasn’t Johnson, nor Jason Day nor Justin Rose. Those three veterans were the only ones at or near the top whose resumes included a previous win in a major. Nor was it Bryson DeChambeau, quite literally the current big thing in golf since he added forty pounds during the PGA Tour’s pandemic layoff. Wolff, the youngest player in contention, and Paul Casey, the affable Englishman who at 43 was the oldest golfer with a chance, also came up just short. So too did Tony Finau, an all too familiar result for the American who now has seven top-ten finishes in sixteen major appearances.

At day’s end this year’s PGA Championship belonged to Collin Morikawa, the 23-year-old who has never been far from center stage since golf returned to action. Fans felt his agony at the Tour’s first stop in June, when he missed a short putt to win on the 72nd hole and an even shorter one to extend a playoff a few minutes later. Then they rejoiced with him in July when he outlasted Justin Thomas in yet another playoff to win the Workday Open. Now, in August, they are marveling at the two spectacular shots that made Morikawa golf’s newest major winner.

The first was at the par-4 14th hole, where an indifferent approach left him wide of the green, facing a difficult chip from well below the putting surface. But Morikawa, who was at that moment part of the 10-under logjam, hit a perfect shot that landed on the green, took one big hop, and rolled smoothly into the hole for the birdie that gave him the lead.

Two holes later Morikawa delivered the shot that decided the tournament with his driver. From the tee of the short par-4 16th, he sent his drive on a dead straight line down the right side of the fairway toward the green. The ball landed just short of the fringe, bounced on the green, and came to a stop seven feet below the cup. When Morikawa converted the eagle chance he moved two clear of Casey, who only moments earlier had tied for the lead with a birdie of his own on the same hole.

At 13-under par and two shots clear of Casey (and eventually Johnson), Morikawa’s remaining task was to forget that his golfing brilliance had been met by little more than birds chirping, and to avoid disaster on Harding Park’s final two holes. Once that was accomplished, he joined Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and Rory McIlroy as 23-year-olds winning their first PGA Championship. His next to last putt, for birdie at the 18th, just turned away from the hole. Had it gone in Morikawa would have come home in the 30 shots predicted earlier in the day. But he probably didn’t mind settling for being the other golfer to play the final nine in 31.


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