Fresh-faced recent college grads that play video games, eat hamburgers every day, don’t have a sense of golf history, and never played links golf in their life aren’t supposed to be taking home ancient championships with silver encrusted trophies that have names, but damn “paying your dues” and “learning how to win,” just point Collin Morikawa to the winner’s circle again, and smile for the Instagram post.
With a three consecutive birdie barrage on the front, and precision short game execution all around the course, the American golf wunderkind who won the 2020 PGA Championship in his first start in that tournament did it again. He won the 149th Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in not only his first start in the Open, but only his second week playing links golf in a tournament period. Morikawa carded a blemish-free 66 en route to posting 15-under 265 and claiming the Claret Jug by two strokes over three-time major winner Jordan Spieth, and by four shots over reigning U.S. Open Champion John Rahm and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen. His aggregate score was only one shot shy of the all-time lowest major championship four day total of 264, co-owned by Henrik Stenson at the 2016 Open Championship at Troon and Brooks Koepka at the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive.
“What I’ve done over the past two years, every single tournament — maybe not the first two, but when I heard Brooks say at the Travelers Championship, I think, which was my third PGA TOUR event as a pro, he said he was there to win. When he first turned pro he was there to make cuts. Then he went to top 30s and top 20s and top 10s. From that day I just switched to, let’s go out and win,” explained Morikawa. “So by the time I was at the PGA last year I had already played in these events with all these guys, all the big name guys, and felt like a normal event. I come out this week not worried about playing against everyone else. I’m just trying to learn the golf course.”
Yes, he’s now the second youngest person ever to win two majors, pipped at the post by Jordan Spieth who won the 2015 Masters and 2015 U.S. Open at 21. Yes a closing 66 to win a major – any major – is time capsule stuff. And yes he looked unflappable in flat-out burying much older and more experienced Louis Oosthuizen mano-a-mano, but color me only mildly impressed.
First off, as they say in the U.K. nae rain, nae wind, nae golf, and all week the south of Kent looked more like Scottsdale-by-the-Sea, It was 80 degrees and sunny, perfect weather for a young Californian. But most importantly, the fickle, devilish cross-winds never materialized. A far cry from the Royal St. George’s that in 1981 swatted around no less personage than Jack Nicklaus himself to the tune of a whopping 83, this year St. George’s handed out sub-par rounds like candy canes on Christmas. In particular both Morikawa and Spieth posted scores in the 60s all four days. There was a time when we were suitably awed by any major champion who carded four sub-par rounds period. Heck, they’ve played the U.S. Open since 1895, yet it took 75 years before anyone carded all four rounds under par in that tournament (Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine National, for those of you scoring at home….71-70-70-70)
Nowadays, frequently, even four sub-70 rounds isn’t good enough to win, as Spieth found out.
Secondly, the final round was a snooze-fest except for Jordan Spieth, who also posted a 66, but who stumbled out of the gate with two bogeys in the first six holes and was struggling to keep up with the bullet-proof Morikawa. Spieth actually went 6-under in one eight hole stretch beginning with an eagle at the par-5 seventh and ending with back-to-back birdies on 13 and 14, but Spieth never really seriously threatened once Morikawa took the lead at the seventh with a birdie of his own, and then increased it with two following birdies at eight and nine. Some pundits even believe Spieth may have lost the tournament on Saturday – or at least seriously hampered his chances – when he bogeyed 17 and 18 from the middle of the fairway with green light pins and instead made two bogeys to fall back two shots behind Morikawa and three behind Oosthuizen going into the final round. It seems Spieth himself might agree.
“The finish yesterday, was about as upset as I’ve taken a finish of a round to the house. I walked in and wanted to – I said, Is there something that I can break?” he quipped curtly. “I was 60 yards out in the fairway and made bogey on 17. Then I had a good look straight up the hill on 18. I finished 2-over on those holes, which what was frustrating was the separation it would have been. It would have been three of us separated by at least three shots from the field and I would have been in the final group. So it was kind of a double whammy there where you feel like you’re not worried about someone going low behind you as much and you feel in control when you’re in the final group.”
Meanwhile, the U.K. press crowned Oosthuizen “King Louis” after 36 holes, but lately the only thing the South African has been good at doing is abdicating. In fact, he’s the only king I ever heard of who abdicates over and over again. Poor Louie: bridesmaid again, runner-up in a major for the seventh time, and in maddening fashion. After breaking the Open Championship record for scoring over the first two days, and managing to maintain the lead after Saturday, Louis Oosthuizen never got out of his courtesy car, sending out a flaccid, weak, wick-away shirt wearing zombie instead. Never a factor after the dismal bogey at the par-5 seventh, the second easiest hole on the course, the carriage turned into a pumpkin for Louis, and once again we have to wonder if he’s our generation’s Jim Furyk.: a lovable plodder who stumbled into a major one week when everyone else’s game seemed to take the week off, and then spent a career with one disappointing Sunday after another as major after major eluded him.
It was Louis who was ahead of Collin on Saturday night. It seems Morikawa had Oosthuizen right where he wanted him.
But most maddeningly – and definitely befitting the quirky idiom of Royal St. George’s – Morikawa’s win came out of nowhere. Sure, he’s not 396th in the world like Ben Curtis was when he won at Sandwich. But Morikawa never played or studied links golf in his life before last week’s Scottish Open. Moreover, Morikawa had a major equipment change pre-tournament – his whole set of irons. St. George’s is known for strange oddities, but that’s inexplicable.
“I was just rolling the dice on hoping these irons would work. I didn’t know if they were going to work. There was no real answer, and I still need to figure out the answer,” he mused cryptically, confusing everyone including himself. “Even though I struck it really well, but I need to know an answer why. I can’t just put these irons in and hope they’re going to work for the next 15 years. I need answers why. Equipment changes, everything changes. I’m going to go into a deep dive and figure out why these MC irons, the Taylor Made P7MC irons worked, and just keep moving forward.”
Finally, I see the impetuousness of youth in him off the course, that modern day laissez faire that’s grown like a weed in the younger generation. When you win major championships, there’s more to life than hamburgers, video games, and Instagram. And those names on the trophies are to be revered not only for what they accomplished for themselves, but for the game. Jack Nicklaus said “act like you’ve been there before and will be there again.” But also remember to carry that every day of your life, not just when you win.
Still, the Kawabunga Kid has arrived with a fanfare and a flourish. He now has two different majors, halfway to the career Grand Slam. Better still, he has a fearlessness and killer instinct that define great champions. He’ll be a factor at next week’s Olympics and beyond. Best of all, there are 12 months before he has to give the Claret Jug back.