ORLANDO, FL --- Over the years, there have been golf shots that became part of the lore of men’s major championships in the United States.
For instance, Bob Tway holing a bunker shot on the final hole to win the 1986 PGA Championship. Gene Sarazen making double eagle in the 1934 Masters. Arnold Palmer driving the first green in the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open in Denver. Larry Mize winning a sudden-death playoff in the 1987 Masters by holing a chip shot. Tiger Woods chipping in from off the 16th green in the final round of the 2005 Masters. Jack Nicklaus’ one-iron to within three inches of the cup on the 17th hole during the final round of the 1972 U.S. Open in Pebble Beach. Tom Watson holing a chip shot out of heavy greenside rough 10 years later on that same hole and same course in the ’82 Open. And, Payne Stewart sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
You can add 23-year-old Collin Morikawa’s play during Sunday’s final round of the 102nd PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco to that exalted list.
First there was Morikawa’s nifty little wedge shot from 15 feet off the 14th green for a birdie that broke a seven-way tie for the lead. But that merely proved to be the preliminary.
Two holes and about 15 minutes later, he stood on the 16th tee tied for first with Paul Casey, who at age 43 is close to twice Morikawa’s age and also was looking for his first win in a major.
The 16th is a classic risk-reward hole – a drivable, 294-yard, par-4. Drive the green and you set up an eagle putt that could win the tournament. But, miss to the left out of bounds or into the ball-gobbling cypress trees that guard the green on the right, and you could watch the tournament slip through your fingers.
Sharing the lead with just three holes to play in a major is pretty heady stuff for a young golfer playing in just his second major, and only the 29th start in his professional career. Besides a $1.98-million check, the winner receives a lifetime exemption into the PGA Championship, a five-year exemption into the other three majors, and a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour. Not to mention, millions of dollars in endorsements and appearance guarantees.
In that situation, the throat tends to get a little drier, the heart beats a little faster, the grip on the club gets a little tighter, and the swing a little quicker.
Most young players trying to establish themselves on the PGA Tour would take the safe approach: play for par – maybe even birdie if they catch a break – and hope to finish high enough to solidify their standing on Tour for the remainder of the season and perhaps for 2021.
But, Morikawa didn’t hesitate. “I knew I had to hit a good one,” the Californian told writers in the post-round press conference.
For Morikawa, who entered the tournament ranked 110th in driving distance with a 295.9-yard average, the 294-yard hole was right in his wheelhouse. With the tee box moved up, the pin in an accessible position, and the wind calmer than it’d been the last several days, he pulled out his driver and sent a laser beam that bounced a couple times in front of the green, then rolled to a stop seven feet below the hole. That set up the eagle putt that gave Morikawa the lead for good.
Cameron Champ, Morikawa’s playing partner, called the drive the stuff of video games. Collin would be the only golfer that finished in the top 10 to eagle No. 16.
Sound of Silence
It was the type of shot that normally would have sent roars from thousands of fans packed around the green reverberating through this municipal course, especially since Morikawa played his college golf at nearby Cal Berkeley, and would have been an immense crowd favorite.
But, this taking place in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic and fans not allowed to attend this first major of the year, the four-time All-American had to settle for a smattering of applause from a group of volunteers working the tournament, and the praise of the network TV crew.
“This is one time I really wish there were crowds,” Morikawa said. “I heard some claps. Obviously, not a ton. But the claps could mean I was on the green, and I’ve got 50 feet.”
The players had talked throughout the tournament about missing the fans, and how crowd reaction often lets the golfers know, good or bad, how they are doing. So, Collin was unaware how good his drive on 16 was until he walked toward the green. “I was just praying for a straight bounce. Then after it bounced, it kind of got behind a tree that we couldn’t see around the corner.
“I looked around the tree, and it looked really, really good.”
It was – as in golf-lore good; as in hoist-the-Wanamaker-Trophy good.
Two routine pars later, Morikawa’s 6-under-par 64 had tied the record for the lowest final-round score by a PGA champion. At 23 years, 6 months and 3 days old, he is the third youngest to win this event, behind Rory McIlroy and Jack Nicklaus (Tiger Woods is the fourth golfer to win the PGA Championship at age 23).
Afterward, Casey, who finished tied with Dustin Johnson for second two shots back, was philosophical and gracious in defeat. “Nothing you could do but tip your cap to that,” he said. “Collin had taken on that challenge and pulled it off. That’s what champions do.”
Golf fans should get used to seeing “Morikawa” and “champion” in the same sentence.
The Wave of the Future
Morikawa is part of a wave of talented young golfers that have the game in this country in good hands. Young guns like Bryson DeChambeau, Champ, Scottie Scheffler, and Matthew Wolff (each of those four is age 26 or younger, and finished in the top 10 at the PGA Championship).
Collin is not a bomber like so many of the young guns today – all of whom seem to be 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, and launch drives well over 300 yards. So, the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Morikawa tends to get lost in the crowd. After all, everybody digs the long ball. Doesn’t matter if it’s baseball, football or golf. If you can go long, you tend to draw a lot of attention.
At an average driving distance of almost 296 yards, he is no weakling. But whatever he lacks in long game he makes up for with a reputation for being an outstanding, accurate ball striker (he led the PGA Championship in driving accuracy), a good iron player, a solid putter, one who’s deft at course management, and a poised golfer comfortable in the spotlight and pressure situations. His wedge shot on 14 and drive on 16 Sunday prove as much.
In his brief pro career, Morikawa has earned the “he can play” stamp of approval from his fellow competitors. That counts as high praise on the PGA Tour.
Think of him as a young Jim Furyk, although with a much more conventional and better-looking golf swing. With three PGA Tour wins, Morikawa has more victories than missed cuts – that’s how steady he is.
Plus, he has a quality that all great athletes seem to possess: supreme self-confidence. “I’ve believed in myself since day one,” he told Ben Everill of pgatour.com. “When I woke up today, I was like, this is meant to be. This is where I feel very comfortable. This is where I want to be, and I’m not scared of it. I think if I was scared from it, the last few holes would have been a little different.”
Morikawa had demonstrated his mettle three weeks earlier at the Workday Charity Open on Nicklaus’ tough Muirfield Village course, when Morikawa defeated Justin Thomas. On the first playoff hole, Thomas appeared to have the title wrapped up by sinking an improbable 50-foot birdie putt. Unfazed, Morikawa matched Thomas’ birdie with a 26-footer of his own. Two holes later, Collin had his second Tour win.
Another Second for Dustin
For Dustin Johnson, who held a one-shot lead after 54 holes, the ending to the PGA Championship was not as happy. This marked the fifth time that the immensely talented Johnson has finished runner-up in a major, and the second consecutive at the PGA.
After the third round, DJ’s friend and two-time defending PGA champion Brooks Koepka appeared to throw down the gauntlet, saying that he liked his chances at two shots back because he’s won four majors while Johnson “had only one” (the 2016 U.S. Open).
Johnson appears so laid back it’s hard to tell if Koepka’s words had any impact. But, Johnson never got in position to take command during the final round. He did close with two birdies in the last three holes for a 68, but it proved to be too little too late.
This was a tournament where fans tuned in hoping to see history: Koepka becoming the first man to win the same major three consecutive times since Peter Thomsen went back-to-back-to-back at the British Open in 1954-56; or, Tiger Woods winning a record 83rd career PGA tournament; or, 50-year-old Phil Mickelson becoming the oldest player to win a major; or, Jordan Spieth completing the career grand slam.
Instead, Koepka faded with a 4-over 74 Sunday and finished tied for 29th. Tiger, Mickelson, and Spieth never were factors.
Golf fans didn’t get to see the history they wanted. But, they were treated to a glimpse of golf’s future. Like his drive on No. 16 Sunday, Collin Morikawa likely is a name that people will be hearing and reading about for years.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.