Despite playing in only his second major championship, Collin Morikawa displayed composure beyond his 23 years as he powered to victory in a historic PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park.
The supreme quality of Morikawa’s shot-making down the stretch on the final round should have been appreciated by thousands of fans lining the fairways at the San Francisco venue. But this was 2020, and the only public recognition of his achievements were from television viewers.
Would Morikawa have struggled under the pressure had the spectators been in attendance?
We’ll never know, and he won’t care a jot. All we do know is that we were crowning a new major champion in the embryonic stage of what will surely be a hugely successful career, and that golf’s first major following the coronavirus shutdown was all about answering questions we never thought would be asked.
Staging an event of this magnitude behind closed doors certainly divided opinion among the golfing fraternity, but the best players in the world overwhelmingly embraced the chance to compete for one of sports’ biggest prizes.
And what drama they gave us, particularly on the final day when no fewer than seven players were tied for the lead with just a handful of holes remaining.
Dustin Johnson was again in the mix along with the likes of Bryson DeChambeau, Paul Casey, Tony Finau, Jason Day and another relative newcomer in Matthew Wolff, who was making his debut in a major championship and playing like a seasoned veteran, albeit with a swing that can best be described as unconventional.
Johnson, 10 years on from his PGA heartbreak at Whistling Straits, was well placed to banish those memories of having to rub out the five he had marked on his scorecard at the 72nd hole and change it to a seven – thus ruling him out of the subsequent playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.
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But the putts dried up for the 2016 US Open champion after a bright start, although he dug deep to stay in contention before Morikawa suddenly made a big move when he chipped in for birdie at the 14th to seize the outright lead on 11 under.
Moments later, Casey birdied 16 to tie the American, who responded with the best drive of his life at that driveable par-four, a beautifully struck shot on a bold line which pitched softly, hopped onto the green and rolled out to seven feet.
It was the defining shot of a champion in the making, and so was the eagle putt that followed. It was struck with perfect pace, held its line and it never looked like missing its target.
Two cast-iron pars were enough to close out a two-shot victory in one of the most enthralling editions of the 102 PGA Championships, and without doubt the quietest.
Morikawa declared himself to be on “Cloud Nine” following his stunning win, and the enormity of his success was heightened further when NBA superstar Steph Curry fired the first question at the champion’s press conference.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve believed in myself since day one,” said Morikawa, who gave a hint that being free of the burden of fan expectation was a decisive factor. “I feel very comfortable in this position. It was going to take a very, very good round today, and I knew with the way the leaderboard was looking and everyone up there, you just had to play well.
“When I woke up today, I though this is meant to be. This is where I feel very comfortable. This is where I want to be, and I’m not scared of it. I think if I was scared of it, the last few holes would have been a little different, but I want to be in this position.
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“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 really do miss the fans, and I know we all had to have some type of adjustment not having fans, but this is where I want to be. I love it.”
The plaudits for Morikawa came thick and fast, although former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley wisely offered a note of caution regarding future expectations – both immediate and long term.
Morikawa’s brilliance under pressure prompted many to compare the sport’s new star to a certain Tiger Woods, but McGinley warned those comparisons were way too early, and unfair to say the least.
“There’s going to be a lot more money coming his way, a lot of stardom, a lot more pressure on his shoulders,” said McGinley, following four marathon commentary stints from Sky Sports headquarters in London – another first. “It’s how he deals with those things that will determine how successful he is going to be in his career. This guy’s got something about him and, at the moment, he has a bit of confidence too.
“Let’s not jump to any conclusions that this is the new Tiger Woods though, and that he is going to run off and win 15, 16 major championships. Let’s give him a bit of time. He’s on a good run of form that has now collided with a brilliant win, against a very strong field, on a great golf course.
“But let’s just take stock before we all jump to conclusions that this is the new Tiger Woods.”
As Morikawa came to terms with seeing his name engraved on the magnificent Wanamaker Trophy, the golfing world reflected on a successful week in San Francisco after the PGA of America proved that staging a major championship in such difficult and unprecedented circumstances was far from an impossible task.
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And while one young American was celebrating a job well done, the rest of us could look forward to another exciting era for golf. One glance at the final leaderboard told us that a new breed of professional golfers were game ready to compete for the biggest prizes at the highest level.
The firmly-established names of Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey, Jason Day and Justin Rose were in the mix for much of the tournament, while Brooks Koepka was only three strokes behind DJ going into the final round in his bid for a remarkable hat-trick of PGA Championship victories.
But there was Morikawa, DeChambeau, Wolff, Scottie Scheffler and Cameron Champ, all serving notice that they were players to be reckoned with. All are blessed with natural athletic ability and talent, and a seemingly endless amount of confidence and bravado.
The unlikely prospect of somebody winning a major in their first appearance was suddenly a reality when Wolff closed out a scintillating 65 on Sunday with two birdies over the final three holes to set an imposing early clubhouse target at 10 under par.
In the end, though, Wolff was outplayed by a someone who had played in twice the number of majors he had! Perhaps he could go one better a month later at Winged Foot, venue for the US Open? As it turned out, DeChambeau would not have to wait much longer for his big breakthrough, although Wolff would not be far behind as he settled for second.
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