Three months ago under murky skies at San Francisco’s TPC Harding Park, Collin Morikawa found himself in contention for a victory in a major championship.
The course was familiar to him owing to his days as a star golfer for the University of California, but being in contention at a major championship was not.
There was a discussion between the transplanted Las Vegas resident and caddie J.J. Jakovac about whether to go for the green or lay up short as the PGA Championship neared what seemed a dramatic conclusion. They were standing on the 16th tee box, 332 yards from a flag stick they could not see.
A decision was made and agreed upon, after which Morikawa was handed the biggest club in his bag.
The sound of driver striking golf ball resonated on TV. The ball was depicted by a red arc, with only a slight bend to the right — exactly what you want when you’re teeing off with three holes to play, a major title on the line and the hole slightly to the right.
The analytics flashed on the screen. Apex: 122 feet. Ball speed: 165 mph. Carry: 274 yards. Curve: 74 feet.
The ball bounced once and onto the green. It rolled to within 7 feet of the stick and the flag that was flapping in the breeze. The shot of the year, golf people said.
Morikawa made the eagle putt.
In good company
At 23, in only his second start in a major tournament, he won the PGA Championship with a final-round 64. He became only the fourth player since World War II to win the PGA before turning 24.
The other three were Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
That will get you a guest spot on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
“My man, Stanford Steve, mandates that any time I have a guest from Cal, I have to ask why you went to Cal,” anchor Scott Van Pelt said, referring to his segment producer and “SportsCenter” personality, Steve Coughlin, a former Stanford football player.
Morikawa grinned but played it straight, refusing to play along by not giving the standard “because I didn’t go to Stanford” response.
Instead, the Los Angeles county native of Japanese and Chinese ancestry matter of factly said Cal wasn’t his first choice, but he ultimately realized it was where he wanted to be.
— Stanford Steve (@StanfordSteve82) September 4, 2020
Driven to succeed
Van Pelt’s producer will be happy to know that Stanford played at least a small part in Morikawa’s rise from college standout to overnight pro golf sensation who will bear watching at this week’s COVID-delayed Masters at stately Augusta National Golf Club.
“This story probably doesn’t make me look good as a coach, but it’s apropos,” said Walter Chun, Morikawa’s coach at Cal.
“His senior year, we’re playing in a tournament at Stanford during spring break, and our No. 2 man was doing Canadian Q-School in San Diego and our fifth man was attending a wedding. We were short-handed. It was a great field; we played well. We finished fourth in a field of like 24. I was content with it.
“(But) Collin the next day says, ‘Coach, I felt you were too happy finishing fourth. We’re better than fourth. We should be challenging ourselves to win.”
So when Morikawa and Jakovac had that conversation on the 16th tee with the PGA title on the line, it didn’t surprise his college coach when the big stick was pulled from the bag.
“That’s kind of his mentality,” Chun said. “If he doesn’t win or he’s not being driven to be the best, then something’s wrong.”
Happy to help
Patrick Lindsey, executive director of the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at TPC Summerlin, said Morikawa wasted little time ingratiating himself within the local golf community after graduating from Cal with a degree in business administration and beginning his PGA career by making 22 consecutive cuts — the second-longest streak to start a career since Tiger Woods’ 25.
“Maybe a month removed from his first win at the Barracuda Championship in Reno, we had asked if he would be interested in doing a pseudo kind of media day and interaction with some of our Shriners patients in the valley,” Lindsey said. “He graciously said he would and was nothing but awesome with the kids.”
Lindsey said Morikawa’s sudden success hasn’t come close to spoiling him.
“I will text him when he’s played well or he’s won,” he said. “He has always gotten back to me, and I would not say I’m in his inner circle at all. I’ve just been very impressed with how he’s continued to handle himself.”
Morikawa studied at the prestigious Haas School of Business at Cal that counts Federal Reserve chairmen and Nobel laureates among its faculty, and Raiders president Marc Badain among its alumni. TV analysts rave about an intelligence and a maturity that belie his years.
Chun said the first shot of Morikawa’s final round at the PGA speaks to his buttoned-down approach.
“It’s a short par 4 that’s straightaway, and you’ll see any of the leading pros blasting driver,” Chun said. “Collin hit a 3-wood because he was comfortable in having a fuller shot in. It’s the final round of a major championship, and he’s in one of the last groups, but he wasn’t caught up in it.
“He’s very confident in who he is and what he does.”
Morikawa will be playing venerable Augusta National for the first time. It has been 41 years, not since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, that someone has been fitted for the green jacket after his first Masters.
The William Hill sportsbook says the odds of Morikawa recapturing major magic amid the azaleas are no better than 25-1.
“I’ve realized over the last couple of weeks that this is without question a new PGA season,” Morikawa wrote in a blog for the PGA Tour website about missing the cut in two of his past four starts, including the U.S. Open and last month’s Shriners Open. “I may be a major winner now, but I still have to play good golf, and everyone is really good at golf, too.”
During his last media availability, Morikawa said he wasn’t planning any special preparations for the Masters but that he has watched it on TV for years. He wasn’t being dismissive or flippant.
“Course knowledge helps wherever you are, so the guys that have played this lots of times, yes, it’s going to help,” he said of lacking experience on golf’s biggest stage. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t go there and play really good golf and hopefully contend Sunday afternoon.”
That would mean Morikawa is planning on making the cut in his Masters debut. That’s what happens when one drives the green and sinks an eagle putt to win a major at age 23.
One becomes confident in who he is and what he does.