12 Jul 2022

Morikawa targeting Open defence

Collin Morikawa’s trademark fade – and his “annoying” competitiveness – is back just in time for his defence of the Claret Jug.

“If a golfer is to be remembered, he must win the title at St Andrews.”

Bobby Jones’ take on the importance of The Open Championship at the Home of Golf might be immortal but it doesn’t really apply to someone like Collin Morikawa, as much as the deceptively laid-back Californian would clearly love to successfully defend the Claret Jug on the Old Course this month.

The 25-year-old’s extraordinary rise to the top table of professional golf means he could pretty much disappear from the world’s famous fairways tomorrow and forever command a storied place in royal and ancient folklore.

From Cal-Berkeley star to Walker Cupper to World Amateur No.1. From pro debut to a PGA Tour card within two months. How about winning his fifth PGA Tour start as a pro at the 2019 Barracuda Championship after making the cut in his very first Major a few weeks earlier en route to a share of 35th at the 2019 U.S. Open.

Talking of cuts avoided, Morikawa achieved that a ridiculous 22 successive times off the bat. Eat your heart out Justin Rose (sorry to relitigate those 21 successive cuts missed, Rosey). Indeed, the only one not overly impressed with that Morikawa stat is probably Tiger Woods whose 25 straight cuts made remains the longest streak to start a pro career.

But even Tiger must have appreciated the gently faded driver to seven feet at TPC Harding Park’s 16th green in the final round of the 2020 PGA Championship. It was one of the greatest shots in Major Championship history, enabling Morikawa to eagle the drivable par-4 and separate himself in the first post-Covid biggie. He won on debut at last year’s Open Championship too but more on Royal St George’s and the critical Scottish Open backstory soon.

There’s still more remarkable feats to tick off first. Like the 16 bogey-free holes Morikawa played to close out the WGC-Workday Championship in 2021. Or the 31 bogey-free holes to close out the 149th Open Championship at Sandwich. And how can we forget Morikawa becoming the first American to be crowned European No.1 after clinching the DP World Tour Championship last November, a memorable week at Jumeirah Golf Estates indeed. Or the unbeaten, 3.5 point Ryder Cup debut which included the clinching half-point against Viktor Hovland in Sunday’s singles at Whistling Straits. And on, and on, it goes…

Morikawa doesn’t fit the mould of the modern-day pro, outwardly at least. He doesn’t bomb it off the tee or in the media centre when the questions get a bit curly. You won’t see him slam clubs or engage in a Twitter rant. But behind the clean-cut facade lurks a fierce competitor.

“Competing is my life,” Morikawa concedes. “I mean, I’m stupidly competitive. It can be a problem with people who are not competitive. Like it can be annoying.”

To be fair, it has proved a problem with Morikawa’s uber-competitive peers. And downright exasperating for golf’s rank and file pros who can only marvel at the rise and rise of Collin Morikawa, five-time PGA Tour winner, and counting.

Open Miracle

You have to rewind to Pádraig Harrington in 2007-2008 to find the last player to successfully defend The Open, meaning the odds are clearly against Morikawa at St Andrews.

That he even has a shot at history is remarkable though given the now world No.4 had zero links experience when he turned up for last year’s Scottish Open, the traditional pre-Open dress rehearsal. It showed with Morikawa hating how his irons interacted with the firmer Renaissance Club turf while he also struggled on slower greens than he was used to. It all added up to a share of 71st, hardly an encouraging precursor to Royal St George’s.

But remember, Morikawa is different gravy. While most pros would have shrugged shoulders, resigned themselves to an early flight home and chalk it up to experience, the American went searching for an immediate solution. Where others wouldn’t dear meddle with a proven formula on the eve of a Major, Morikawa made the brave decision to change out three irons for more forgiving models. The other masterstroke, quite literally as it turned out, was a subtle change of grip on long putts. Rounds of 67-64-68-66 were consigned to history as an Open championship record score of 265 at Royal St George’s as Morikawa became the first player in history to capture two separate Major titles on debut.

Had it not been for the realism of Renaissance, Morikawa knows the outcome – an eventual two-stroke victory over Jordan Spieth – would have been much different.

“I mean, I seriously owe everything to this week,” Morikawa said of the eve of this year’s Genesis Scottish Open.

“I think the event before this for me last year was, I think, the U.S. Open at Torrey and my game felt has good as it had the entire year. I came over here and it was a little windy but nothing crazy and I was hitting 9-irons to edges of the greens, and it just wasn’t acceptable.

“You know, sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m wrong. I always like to think I’m right but that’s never the case, and I just kept complaining to J.J. [caddie J.J. Jakovac] that like my irons felt (off), I couldn’t explain why, I just couldn’t hit the ball in the centrr of the face.

“Without this extra week of just prep here at Renaissance and playing here at The Scottish Open, I would never have thought about changing irons. So if I had just shown up to The Open Championship last year, it probably just would have been a repeat of what I saw last year during this event, hitting maybe fairways and then missing every green, which you know, is not the case for trying to win Major Championships.”

Fast-forward to the present day and Morikawa had more bad news for his peers. His trademark cut, which has been conspicuous by its absence for much of the year, is back, and importantly so on demand. It makes a third top-five in this year’s Majors distinctly possible, especially as he struggled to fifth place without it for much of last month’s U.S. Open at Brookline.

“Fades are back. I think — I’d like to say the fades are back because I am able to hit the cut shot again but over the last couple days, playing in Ireland and playing at Adare Manor [in the JP McManus Pro-Am], I actually worked the ball a lot more than I have probably, ever.” Morikawa said.

“And I’m not saying I’m hooking the ball and slicing the ball but I’m just playing the right shots and the only time I’ve watched a couple guys do that is J.T. and Tiger. The few times I played with him — I played with J.T. at The Players when it was super windy, right. And to watch him play that, I think he was bogey-free, he had full control of his golf ball. He worked it both ways. And then the few times I played with Tiger, even though this is the older side and end side of Tiger’s career, he worked the ball when he needed to, right. He played the right shots.

“I think past two days [at Adare Manor], like I got in that mindset of like I’m just going to play the right shot and play the percentage shot. So it’s cool of having control of the ball and being able to work it both ways, because out here, I think you’re going to need it.”

“Out here” has become a battleground for the very future of the pro game. Morikawa has hitched his wagon to the PGA-DP World Tour alliance and is thrilled there is now a clear pathway for Europe’s top players to compete on the PGA Tour. Likewise, he’s excited by the January-August PGA Tour schedule which might open more opportunities in Europe later each year.

He’s a duel member of both tours already and clearly has his sights set on legacy rather than Riyals.

World Domination

For sure, he covets more Majors and to be remembered for winning the 150th Open at St Andrews like Bobby Jones implored. There’s also the No.1 ranking which was so close after won the DP World Tour Championship. When he led December’s Hero World Challenge by five strokes with 18 to play in Bermuda, it seemed he would supplant Jon Rahm and have it all including world domination. But golf is golf and not even Collin Morikawa is infallible. He signed for a disappointing 76 and now has Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy, as well as Rahm, to overtake.

Cue the ruthless competitor, a player able to quickly identify riddles and find solutions.

“Yeah, I think that might have played a factor in how I was performing beginning of the year,’ admitted Morikawa who has gone winless since Royal St George’s.

“All I cared about — not all I cared about, that’s a lie. What I cared about was trying to get to No. 1 in the world. I’ve heard players talk about this and I’ve paid attention to it, and where I’m at now, Scottie has built a gap between us and I just want to get back in the winner’s circle.

“That’s what it was like since I’ve turned pro and it hasn’t changed but when you know you’re on the cusp of something and you’re so close to that, sometimes that kind of jumps precedent to what you really need to focus on, right. And I was so focused on hitting that perfect cut and hitting these perfect shots that I knew could get me to No. 1 in the world that it kind of took over rather than me just playing golf.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t hit me until, you know, a few weeks ago at the U.S. Open where I said, screw it, let’s just go play golf.

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