Golf ’s boy wonder
Young American wins US PGA
It has become a tradition in golf that whenever a first-time major winner is crowned there is a stampede to issue general assurances that no, this champion will not be a one-hit wonder. It is a generous but generally misplaced leap of faith, as the statistics highlight.
There have been 224 winners of the majors in their 160-year existence and 142 are single-time winners – almost two-thirds. So those grand pronouncements in the wake of a golfer’s primary glory are daft and should not be made under any circumstance. So here goes: barring illness or injury there is no way on God’s Earth that Collin Morikawa will not win another major. In fact, he will win at least three.
This is not merely an emotive response based on Sunday’s extraordinary events at Harding Park, San Francisco, where the Californian played one of the most decisive US PGA Championship shots ever. This is based on history.
Since 1960 – regarded as the dawn of the modern major era when Arnold Palmer travelled across for the Open and the Americans largely recognised the grand slam calendar – only two players have won majors before they were 25 and not collected another. One was Jerry Pate, the other Justin Thomas.
The latter is 27, is world No 2, has 13 PGA Tour titles to his name and is so nailed-on to become a multiple-major winner that he should be sponsored by Screwfix.
Pate, meanwhile, was one of the biggest surprise winners of a major when, as a 22-year-old rookie, he won the 1976 US Open, and even then he would surely have won another but for a succession of shoulder injuries that meant he was all but finished by the age of 30.
Of course, these things happen to professional athletes. Nothing is certain. But when it comes to Morikawa’s likely career path it makes sense to analyse those other golfers who, since the Second World War, won their first major before the age of 24: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Severiano Ballesteros, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
The first two in that list do not warrant comparison, except with each other. Yet while it might seem unfair to burden Morikawa with the expectation of living up to the other three, it should be noted that his rise to major-winner status was even quicker. Granted Ballesteros, McIlroy and Spieth were all under 22 when they joined the club and Morikawa is 23, but they had been professional for longer.
It is stunning to think that Morikawa has only been in the paid ranks for 14 months and that three of those months were wiped out by the pandemic.
This was only Morikawa’s second major and only his 27th professional start. Woods won the 1997 Masters on his 17th professional start, but that was in his seventh major appearance. Woods had won three PGA Tour titles before his maiden major at Augusta, while Morikawa had won twice before Harding Park. Morikawa made his first 22 cuts as a pro, a feat surpassed, you guessed it, by only Woods, with 25.
Everywhere one peers on Morikawa’s pristine CV are startling facts. For instance, his Saturday and Sunday scores were 65 and 64 and nobody has ever shot fewer in the final two rounds of a men’s major. Morikawa is up to world No5 and could conceivably be No 1 by the end of this month.
He has the game and attitude that scream longevity, and Tour stalwarts insist they knew it from the start, picking him out from this veritable cavalry of young Americans who spread fear through Europe’s Ryder Cup team room.
England’s Paul Casey said: “There’s always kind of a new wave, always a bunch of guys that rock up on the scene, and Collin didn’t necessarily get the most publicity out of the group he was in, but you know, I consider myself veteran; I’ve been around the block, so I know talent when I see it, know when somebody is that good, and Collin was that good.
“We, the veterans, could just tell – he’s the one. Even if the media weren’t talking about him, that’s where we were focusing our attention. And we weren’t wrong. Instant maturity was probably the one thing that stood out; the way he speaks, the way he plays golf. He’s really stamped his authority.”
Casey, of course, has the bruises as evidence. The 43-year-old had just birdied the 16th to tie with Morikawa and was dreaming of his own major duck being broken and England’s first Wanamaker Trophy winner in 101 years, when this studious young man stepped up to that drivable par four and conjured one of the strikes of the ages.
It was anything but gung-ho. Morikawa’s playing partner, Cameron Champ, remarked that it was so perfect it looked like it came out of “a video game”.
It was a 294-yard execution of consummate control hit on to the ideal spot before the green, flirting with the bunker on the right of the putting surface before coming to rest within seven feet of the pin.
The eagle took him two clear of a leaderboard that had earlier been so packed it seemed to have been scoffing at the concept of social distancing. Yet the most amazing aspect was that he was only two ahead and there were two treacherous holes remaining. But everyone already knew; Morikawa had, in the minds of Casey and most other observers, already completed the glory.
That is the extent of the clinical confidence he exudes. That is what is important, so while the details of his background emerge, of his Japanese-Chinese heritage and of the usual tales of a toddler picking up a club and never letting go, it is the moment that truly matters and the Los Angeles starlet is more than prepared to play the leading man in American golf ’s latest blockbuster.
What a sequel he could put on at next month’s US Open, and the Masters after that.
“I feel very comfortable in this spot,” Morikawa said. “When I woke up this morning I was like, ‘This is meant to be, this is where I want to be, and I’m not scared from it’. If I was, the last few holes would have been a little different.
“And for me it doesn’t stop here. I’ve got a very good taste of what this is like, what a major championship is like. I know we all had to have some type of adjustment not having fans, and when fans do start coming back it’s going to be an adjustment, but I love it.
“The majors are going to be circled in, just like everyone else, but I’ve got to focus on every single week. I’m 23. I haven’t even had a full year on Tour with everything going on. There’s a very different sense of comfort now.”
Pages 6-7 Collin Morikawa, aged 23, holds the Wanamaker Trophy after a final-round 64 left him two shots clear in the US PGA Championship in San Francisco, earning him a first major win