Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 22, 2021

Golf’s Stealth Superstar

It has been just thirteen months since Collin Morikawa’s name first appeared on these pages.  Perhaps even more surprising, given all that has happened since, is that the initial mention of Morikawa, then a 23-year-old in his second season on the PGA Tour and barely a year removed from his student days at Cal Berkeley, was not exactly positive.    

The occasion was the Tour’s return to action in June of last year, following its three-month COVID-19 hiatus.  Morikawa had a chance to claim victory at the Charles Schwab Challenge, better known to golf fans as the Colonial for the Fort Worth country club of that name that is the tournament’s longtime venue.  Instead, a pair of misfires with the shortest club in his bag turned what should have been a second Tour win into a gut punch of a defeat.  Morikawa first missed a five-footer for birdie on the final hole, with the resulting par giving new life to Daniel Berger, who was watching from a clubhouse balcony overlooking the 18th green.  Tied through regulation, the pair headed to a playoff where Morikawa promptly coughed up the tournament by missing another putt on the first hole, this one from little more than tap-in distance.  To be fair, the main point of that post was that it was a day of many missed putts by lots of golfers.  But while the other pushes, pulls, and spinouts were struck by more familiar names, none of those miscues were as costly or ill-timed as Morikawa’s two misses.

Since that initial account of an unpleasant afternoon, Morikawa’s name has reappeared here with increasing frequency and for decidedly better reasons.  A month after his Texas debacle, he was the star of a post about the media’s focus on the Tour’s latest youth movement, the result of Morikawa and 22-year-old Viktor Hovland chasing Justin Thomas – who, all of 27, was the old man in the media accounts – during the final round of the Workday Charity Open.  Morikawa eventually caught the golfer then ranked #3 in the world, closing a three-shot deficit down the stretch before winning on the third hole of the subsequent playoff.

Coming a month later than it had looked like it was going to, Morikawa’s second PGA Tour win was his first in a full-field event.  His maiden victory had come at the 2019 Barracuda Championship, a so-called alternate event since it is scheduled the same week as one of the World Golf Championship tournaments, which are restricted to the top players in the world rankings.  But in our internet driven, social media obsessed age, every achievement has its doubters.  So where his win at the Barracuda was diminished for some fans by the weak field, Morikawa’s victory at the Workday was second-guessed by a few pundits because the tournament was played without spectators.

As if on cue, that same largely specious asterisk was one of two placed beside Morikawa’s stunning win four weeks later at the PGA Championship.  Like every other sport, golf’s schedule was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, with the PGA becoming the first major played during the calendar year, and the only one ultimately contested within the framework of the Tour’s wraparound 2019-20 season.  And like the Workday and all the rest of the tournaments on the reconfigured calendar, the 2020 PGA Championship was closed to fans.  That meant no massive roar swept across TPC Harding Park late in the final round, when Morikawa’s laser-like drive on the short par-4 16th hole found the green, setting up a short putt for eagle that propelled him into the lead.  He clung to the two-shot edge the rest of the way, earning a major title in his very first appearance at the PGA Championship. 

Of course, winning one of golf’s biggest prizes isn’t supposed to happen like that, so the absence of the massive crowd typical at a major prompted suggestions that he had not been properly tested, as did the fact that Morikawa was intimately familiar with the Harding Park layout from his years in college just across San Francisco Bay.  Even when he notched his fourth Tour title, this one at a WGC event in February, the unexpected setting – the pandemic forced the Tour to move the event from Mexico to the quirky Concession Golf Club in Bradenton Florida, where the pros recorded everything from a one to a ten on various holes – garnered as much attention as Morikawa’s play, and both were overshadowed by news of Tiger Woods’ automobile accident in California just as the tournament was about to begin. 

Now Morikawa has done it again, winning another major in his first try, this time the oldest of them all, the Open Championship.  At its 149th playing, contested over four mostly sunny days at Royal St. George’s on England’s Channel coast, he emerged as the Champion Golfer of the Year by firing four rounds in the 60’s, besting three-time major titlist Jordan Spieth by two strokes and both U.S. Open winner Jon Rahm and 2010 Open victor Louis Oosthuizen, who led after each of the first three days, by four.  He is the first golfer to win a pair of majors in his first attempt, and now has five Tour victories that include a WGC event and half of a career grand slam.  There’s no disputing the strength of the Open field, nor the quality of a links that has hosted the Open fourteen times, starting in 1894 when it became the first course outside of Scotland to host the tournament.  No one can complain that Morikawa had a home course advantage, and the British government allowed up to 32,000 fans to walk the grounds of Royal St. George’s each day, about 75% of normal attendance.

Given all that, plus the fact that with the win Morikawa ascended to #3 in the world rankings, surely the accolades are finally flowing.  For the most part that is true, and certainly the emerging young star’s fan base grew exponentially last weekend, both because of his play and the grace he showed during the Open’s awards ceremony.  But this is 2021, when being contrary will always generate clicks, and this week it was the usually estimable Sally Jenkins who opted to play the role of Debbie Downer.  In her Washington Post column, Jenkins warned Morikawa that the very nature of his chosen game means the good times won’t last, and he should prepare for the days when every shot seems to go astray.

As every weekend hacker knows, there is truth in Jenkins’ admonition.  The late John Denver could easily have been writing about golf when he penned the lyrics “some days are diamonds, some days are stone.”  As Jenkins pointed out and fans well know, Open runner-up Spieth was himself the boy wonder not so long ago and is only now coming back from a long detour through the golfing desert.  Morikawa’s Achilles heel is his putting, where despite a solid week on the greens in Sandwich he is ranked 170th for the season on the PGA Tour.  Those wobbly putts that led to his first mention in this space were not all that unusual.  Still, given what he has done since then, often without proper recognition, it seems only fair to join with the fans at the Open, who by tournament’s end were cheering his every shot, and finally give Collin Morikawa and his sweet rhythmic swing a long overdue moment in the sun.

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