Golf’s newest major champion could feel it in the crisp Northern California air, knowing that his PGA victory simply was meant to be
SAN FRANCISCO – The early morning and late afternoon coastal air temps weren’t the only cool thing about the 102nd PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park. It was cool that we finally – finally! – had major-championship golf in 2020. It was a very cool Sunday leaderboard. The venue and course setup – exciting, drivable par 4s on each side – was cool. And the youngsters … wow. There was plenty to like there. A bevy of twentysomethings popped their heads into the party on Sunday. As my 19-year-old might say, that’s complete chill.
As for the winner, Collin Morikawa? About a year after sitting in on his final exams at nearby Cal, he won a major title at age 23. It was only his second major-championship start. One cool customer (scores).
There are so many takeaways from one of the wildest major-championship Sundays in recent memory. TPC Harding Park, which will host a Steph Curry-led PGA Tour event in the fall of 2021, was better than anyone expected it to be, and gave us an incredible tussle at the top as we tried to sort through and digest a major contested without fans. Close your eyes and think about all that they missed: Mark Hubbard holing a 236-yard shot for eagle-2 from a fairway bunker on the ninth hole Friday; Bryson DeChambeau’s 95-foot putt for birdie at the closing hole Saturday; an ace by Ben An at 11 on Sunday (at least the walking scorer hooted and hollered); Ryan Palmer playing the last three holes of a major in seven shots (eagle-birdie-birdie); and Morikawa’s brilliance late on Sunday, when he emerged from the crowd to put his arms around that Wanamaker Trophy.
As one of my pals said, the only regret about Sunday is that we didn’t have a nine-man playoff. He wanted more golf. We all did. The general feeling was that a more low-key atmosphere without 50,000 fans lining the fairways on a Sunday would help those who lacked major-championship Sunday experiences under their belt, at the same time removing the inherent advantage owned by players who have been there, done that – your Tiger Woodses, Brooks Koepkas and Rory McIlroys. You know the theory: At majors, you really need to knock hard on the door a few times before it opens.
When Morikawa stepped up to the 16th tee on Sunday, looking down the fairway to a green just 278 yards away (front yardage), where he’d said he’d never even consider going for it just four days earlier, the competitor inside him said it was green-light time. It was time for magic, and you don’t produce it laying up.
He thought back to Muirfield Village, where he'd hit three perfect drivers on Jack Nicklaus’ drivable 14th hole. So, he removed the driver cover and ripped a beautifully cut tee shot that took a friendly member’s bounce and rolled up to within 7 feet of the flagstick, setting up the center-cut eagle that pretty much would seal victory. Funny, but the first thing Morikawa thought to himself after the shot: Man, it would have been cool to have pulled that off in front of a packed grandstand. He’ll have time for that.
These are interesting times among the young set on the PGA Tour. We made a great ruckus of the Class of 2011 when those players entered with a bang (Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Daniel Berger, et al.), but this group going through right now is a new wakeup call. Viktor Hovland is a ball-striking machine, and if Matthew Wolff gains some consistency, wow. Sunday afternoon, it was almost as if Wolff dropped out of some tall Monterey cypress tree and landed among the leaders, going on a 5-under tear through four holes, beginning at the seventh. He’s explosive. Birdie. Birdie. Birdie. Eagle. Honestly, he had good looks inside 10 feet on Nos. 12-14 and missed them all, or he’d have been right there, too. He’s all of 21, two years younger than his good pal Morikawa. Years from now, he has a strong tale to tell regarding how he showed up in his very first major. He tied for fourth.
Wolff swings like a man whose flimsy umbrella just got hit by a 40-mph gust. In contrast, Morikawa has a move that is classic, like slow music, a swing built to last. Everything about him is polished for somebody so young. He is 23 going on 40, dashing smile, quiet confidence. A California version of Adam Scott, perhaps. The putter isn’t always there for him, but when it is, Morikawa is going to be pretty dangerous. His iron play is so good, so steady, that on weeks when he just putts average, he should be somewhere near the leaders.
“I'm in awe still watching him play,” said his caddie, J.J. Jakovac, who used to work for Ryan Moore. “All my caddie friends say the same thing. They're like, I just cannot get over how mature your guy is. He's like an old soul or something. He's just plodding along, and he just knows what he needs to do. The confidence is a quiet confidence, but it's super confident, you know?”
We’re starting to learn that. Golfers usually get four cracks a year at majors, but this season there was only one. Morikawa drove to a course that he’d played a dozen times while at Cal, just two shots behind leader Dustin Johnson entering the final round, and he thought to himself, Why not me? That’s seemingly bold thinking by a 23-year-old with 27 professional starts under his belt line. (Good thing he got that business degree at Cal; he is averaging $255,517 a start.)
“I feel very comfortable in this spot,” he explained Sunday evening, with daylight fading and the temperatures dipping into the lower 50s. “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 from it. I think if I was scared from it, the last few holes would have been a little different, but you want to be in this position.”
Sure, he has lots of talent, but even then, all of this early success would seem a little much, no? Fifth-ranked in the world? Major winner? All too soon, right? And then you take the full measure of Collin Morikawa, study him, get a grasp of his quiet confidence, his balance. It leaves you with a sense that he’s right on time. Meant to be here.
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