News & Opinion

Only 1 drive in golf ranks better than Collin Morikawa’s at 16

Collin Morikawa 2020 PGA Championship
Collin Morikawa doesn’t swing the biggest stick on the PGA Tour, ranking only 107th in driving distance at 295.9 yards, but he shows enough pop Sunday at TPC Harding Park to drive a short par 4 and make an eagle in the 102nd PGA Championship when it matters most.

Give the 2020 PGA winner his due for the tee ball that tilted the Wanamaker Trophy his way, but Annika Sorenstam’s opening drive at the 2003 Colonial might loom as the biggest in golf history

All is right with the world again, or at the very least, in the best game on which it is played. A 23-year-old college graduate shoots a Sunday 64 to vault atop a leaderboard full of traffic and star power, winning his first major title on just his second attempt. A smallish young man ranked 107th on the PGA Tour in driving distance beats all of the bombers, owing his two-shot margin of victory to a blast off the 16th tee that settled 7 feet from the hole.

Short par 4s have been en vogue for a while now, but this was the first time one of them really decided a big tournament. Drive for show, putt for dough? Put the two together and you’ve got the second-youngest man to win a PGA Championship in the modern era, the youngest guy to win any major since Jordan Spieth in 2015.

Big things were expected of Collin Morikawa, who earned a degree in business administration at Cal-Berkeley in 2019 and has spent the past 15 months getting down to just that. If he hadn’t tripped over a pair of missed 5-footers on back-to-back holes in the closing stages at Colonial, the kid would have three wins in the past two months.

There’s still only one missed cut in 27 events on his tour-pro portfolio, and Morikawa, in his next start, toppled Justin Thomas in overtime in Columbus. No matter how you crunch the numbers, we’re talking about the fastest start on the PGA Tour since, uh, Tiger Woods, who turns 45 in December. The beginning of Morikawa’s career makes Spieth’s look like it happened in slow-motion.

Cue the cautionary tale. Nobody ever can take away Spieth’s three major titles, but Spieth himself can’t get out of his own way. He hasn’t won in more than three years, which everybody knows, and is resting uncomfortably at No. 60 in the Official World Golf Ranking, three spots behind Shugo Imahira. Who said pro golf has to make any sense? Taking the game by storm can lead to some dark clouds. Regardless of a player’s talent, work ethic and perspective, no one is immune to the pitfalls of instant stardom until he has piled up enough victories for vaccination.

In other words, we’ll see. A lot of gifted young players struggle with their putting when they get to the big leagues, and Morikawa doesn’t qualify for an exemption there. His statistical data on the greens ranks him in the Tour’s bottom third across the board, lowlighted by 140th in strokes gained putting.

Some emerging hotshots struggle because their caddies also are new and can’t read break any better than the guy holding the club. Others need time to deal with the Tour’s speedy pace.

Is it mere coincidence that Morikawa won at Harding Park, where the greens weren’t even close to scary fast? Not that it matters now. When you sink a difficult chip to grab a share of the lead with four holes to play, then drive it halfway to gimme distance two holes later, a man’s flatstick need not cause flatulence.

Collin Morikawa makes eagle on Harding Park 16th hole 2020 PGA Championship final round
After Collin Morikawa holes out for eagle at the par-4 16th hole Sunday at TPC Harding Park, the PGA Championship was his to lose, which he didn't.

Morikawa’s ultra-memorable tee ball at the 16th last Sunday immediately qualifies, in a rather unofficial sense, as one of the greatest drives in golf history. Rarely do the game’s aficionados discuss such a subject, as opposed to the greatest putts of all-time or the most remarkable recovery shots, or even the best ever played from a fairway bunker.

It just doesn’t resonate. Corey Pavin became a living legend after his 4-wood from Shinnecock’s 18th fairway parked 5 feet from the flag, which won him the 1995 U.S. Open even after he flubbed the putt. How can anyone claim immortality with a tap-in par? Woods probably is the source for five of the 10 finest shots ever struck by man, but seriously, can anyone identify the most astonishing drive of his 24-year career?

A putt ostensibly defines one’s performance on any given hole. The tee ball is basically a beauty queen waving from a parade float on the Fourth of July. Looks really nice, but that’s about it. Morikawa’s eagle-beginning, game-winning drive at Harding Park joins a couple of eternally noteworthy long shots on the short list of those exuding excellence in the clutch.

Arnold Palmer’s titanic clout on Cherry Hills’ opening hole in the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open, when he overcame a seven-stroke deficit to win by two. Arnie made only a birdie at the first, however, and if Omar Uresti had driven the green from 346 yards, nobody would have given a damn.

For my money, Annika Sorenstam’s opening swing at the 2003 Colonial, courtesy of her own 4-wood off the 10th, rates as the greatest ever. Burdened by nothing more than becoming the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour, internally racked by several months of high-decibel attention, some of it questioning the validity of her participation, Sorenstam began her historic mingle with the big boys by piping it 255 yards down the right side of the fairway.

Not bad for a girl. Not bad at all.

Morikawa falls in right behind her. Not every good walk has to be spoiled.

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