There’s not much connecting golf and boxing but every so often there’s a stroke made in the heat of battle that delivers a clear and unequivocal knockout blow. During Sunday’s final round of the PGA Championship, the highly talented and emerging star Collin Morikawa delivered it as powerfully as any punch ever thrown by former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.
How appropriate that San Francisco, which experienced major earthquakes in its past, would have the golf equivalent hit with such overwhelming force.
With a Sunday final round leaderboard jammed together like commuters on a New York City subway, the 23-year-old Morikawa decisively broke from the pack with a tour de force tee shot at the short par-4 16th setting up a 7-foot eagle putt which he then drilled into the back of the cup.
In a blink of an eye the PGA Championship — which appeared to be going to a multi-player playoff was effectively over. Yes, two holes remained but Morikawa closed out the proceedings with two airtight pars. The Wannamaker Trophy was leaving the household of two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka and becoming the possession of an emerging player who since turning professional in 2019 has quickly become a force and a clear example of a new emerging generation of players.
Trailing final round leader Dustin Johnson by two strokes — Morikawa played a bogey-free round of 64 — highlighted by the incredible tee shot at the 16th. Such things do not happen with luck — there’s a boatload of skill and nerve.
The bold play culminated with a 13-under-par 267 total — good for a two-shot margin over both Paul Casey and Johnson who shared second.
Since the PGA Championship became a stroke play event in 1958 four players have captured the title before the age of 24. Rory McIlroy is the youngest, followed by Jack Nicklaus, then Morikawa and Tiger Woods. Very elite company no doubt.
Want another connection to Woods. Morikawa has had 29 starts on the PGA TOUR — as an amateur and now professional. On this 29th start — at this year’s PGA Championship — he matched what Tiger accomplished in 1997 when winning his first green jacket at The Masters.
Add on the high-level consistency of his play with 22 consecutive cuts made and you have an emerging talent where the sky is truly the limit.
Going into the weekend’s play Morikawa was in contention but would need to play a very high level to assert himself. When you post a major championship record of 129 for the final two rounds you can say that’s clearly asserting oneself.
Morikawa’s final round was aided by a crucial 12-foot for par at the opening hole. He kept pace with the others all jockeying for position and it was at the par-4 14th that the tide began turning in his favor when he chipped in from the front section of the green.
Amazingly, this year’s PGA Championship is only his second major event — joining seven others who have done so.
Final rounds of major championships are always fraught with key tactical decisions and when arriving at the short par-4 16th — Morikawa weighed his options carefully.
“He (Jonathan Jakovac his caddie) asked me what I wanted to do. I’m sure it was a split between hitting iron and going for it. Why not hit a great driver? Why not hit that little left-to-right shot with the wind helping off the left? I hit a great — I just needed that one bounce to go forward, and it did, and those are shots that you’ve got to take opportunities, and that’s what really separated me.”
For many players in such a moment — the tendency is to play not to lose — Morikawa viewed it differently as an opportunity to seize.
At this year’s PGA Championship — Morikawa led the field in overall strokes gained, led the putting category and was the most accurate driver of the ball as well as the top player in proximity to the hole with their approach shots. That’s seriously sound playing.
Morikawa has been doing special things on the golf course for quite some time. He had a stellar collegiate and amateur career at nearby – UC Berkeley – selected All-America 1st team all four years. “I haven’t been back since I graduated last year. So it’s a pretty special place. It always will be. But to close it out here at a course that I played a dozen times throughout college, it’s really special. Yeah, San Francisco is always going to be my second home.”
This year’s PGA Championship showed how a younger emerging generation of players is quickly inserting themselves into the picture. Four players under the age of 26 finished in the top ten — the most ever in the PGA’s stroke play era.
The rise of junior programs — starting as early as single digit age — in concert with quality instruction and being immersed with top level competition has propelled a number of players to be ready when professional golf looms ahead.
Collin Morikawa has three PGA TOUR wins at such an early age and the future is indeed very promising. Being able to emerge from a crowded leaderboard by seizing the moment is something only the most talented of players are able to do. The drive at the 16th is now etched in the golf history books.
Nonetheless, golf is a fickle game and the anointing of golf’s next leading superstar is littered with countless names who failed to materialize. When presented with the Wannamaker Trophy at the final ceremonies Morikawa lost grip of the top section of the trophy. It was the only time his grip on what was happening wavered all day at TPC Harding Park.