A Cal Kid Wins at TPC Harding Park
SAN FRANCISCO – Morning broke at the 102nd PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park, and there was almost an Ichabod Crane eeriness to the setting. The marine layer was heavy and the golf course was clouded in a thick and smokey gray fog. So many players in contention on a Sunday of the season’s lone major, and a giant trophy and spot in history awaiting the one player who could emerge from the fog. It was like waiting for a baseball player to step out from the corn in “Field of Dreams.”
Hours later, after a wild Sunday that unfolded without fans to see it in this Covid-19 world, one player simply would outclass the rest. Collin Morikawa, 23, who little more than a year ago was taking finals at nearby Cal, played the round of his young life, providing late fireworks to shoot 6-under 64 and capture his first major title. Morikawa finished the tournament on a pretty demanding TPC Harding Park track at 13-under 267. Did we mention that he’s only 23?
Morikawa now has won three times in a little more than a year, and he’s quick to mention that he is only getting started. A birdie-par-eagle spurt in the middle of his back nine proved the difference, as Morikawa edged 54-hole leader Dustin Johnson (68) and Englishman Paul Casey by two shots. At one point Sunday, there were seven players tied for the lead, and about 10 more somewhere close, knocking. The pace was fast and frenetic. At times, Sunday at the PGA seemed to resemble a tight, three-wide NASCAR race moreso than a tranquil golf championship.
Here’s the thing about Morikawa: When the moment got big on that back nine, it didn’t overwhelm him. Instead, he embraced it.
“I feel very comfortable in this spot,” said Morikawa, who joined the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in winning a PGA Championship at age 23. “When I woke up today, I was like, this is meant to be. This is where I feel very comfortable. This is where I want to be, and I'm not scared from it. I think if I was scared from it, the last few holes would have been a little different, but you want to be in this position.”
Case in point was his boldness at the par-4 16th hole, a spunky little bender to the right that features a small green well guarded by bunkers. Even with the tees moved up to 294 yards, some players chose to lay back and take their chances with a wedge. Morikawa certainly could have chosen that route. He was tied with Casey, the veteran Englishman who was playing in his 64th major, at 11 under. Morikawa, playing in his second major, and his caddie, J.J. Jakovak, didn’t need a very lengthy discussion.
“He asked me what I wanted to do,” Morikawa said. “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 just needed that one bounce to go forward, and it did, and those are shots that you've got to take opportunities. That's what really separated me.”
As his tee shot bounded onto the green, eventually settling just 7 feet from the hole for eagle, Casey, who’d just birdied the hole, peered over from the 17th tee, almost in disbelief.
“Talent … you know something good,” said Casey, who was trying to become only the second Englishman to win the PGA. (England’s Jim Barnes won the first two PGAs, but that was more than a century ago.) “I don't like the term ‘talent,’ but you know when somebody is good, and Collin was good. We could just tell. Those of us who knew, knew that was the cat that we kind of – he's the one. Even if the media weren't talking … that's where we were focusing our attention. And we weren't wrong.”
Johnson, 36, who has been the PGA runner-up two years running and had a shot at returning to World No. 1 with a victory, birdied the first and fourth holes but really didn’t get much done after that. By the time he got to the 16th tee, Morikawa was four shots clear of him. Immensely talented, at 36 Johnson finds himself stuck on one major championship. The clock ticks.
As for Brooks Koepka, a charge at a third consecutive PGA title and a piece of golf history never materialized Sunday. Starting his day two shots behind Johnson, he made four bogeys on his opening nine and plummeted down the board.
“It’s my first bad round in a while in a major,” said Koepka, whose 74 left him tied for 29th.
So many different players stuck their head into the mix and contended on Sunday. Matthew Wolff, only 21, another of the young guns and competing in his very first major, went birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle starting at the seventh to jump in. He’d be the first to the clubhouse at 10 under. Bryson DeChambeau (66) sparred with the leaders. Rookie Scottie Scheffler, playing in the last group, wasn’t backing down. He shot 68. Tony Finau was pouring in putts, finishing at 66.
Jason Day, seeking his second PGA title, went out on Sunday, drove it great, hit greens, didn’t make a bogey and shot 66. Pretty strong. On this day, because of one fearless star in the making, it simply wasn’t enough.
“There was a lot of …kind of whiplash,” Day said, smiling, talking about the tumultuous movement on the leaderboard much of the day. “Everything was coming and going. It was really cool to be able to be in contention again at a major championship on Sunday. It's just nice to be able to know that the game can handle the pressure of trying to win a major championship.”
Morikawa didn’t have to wait very long to see how well his game would stand up. Putting can at times hold him back, but at the PGA, he led the field in strokes gained: putting. (He ranks 164th in that category on the PGA Tour.) That was huge. He led the field in driving accuracy (39 of 56 fairways). He led the field in proximity to the hole (34 feet). He missed six greens in regulation on Sunday, and went 6-for-6 scrambling. He wakes up on Monday morning not only with that beautiful Wanamaker Trophy next to him, but having moved to No. 5 in the World Ranking. Collin Morikawa moves fast.
“You know, I'm on Cloud Nine right now,” he said, standing on the 18th green Sunday evening. “It's hard to think about what this championship means, and obviously it's a major, and this is what guys go for, especially at the end of the their career, and we're just starting. So I think this is just a lot of confidence, a lot of momentum, and it just gives me a little taste of what's to come.
“I got a taste of this now.”
A big taste. It will only whet his appetite for more. A Cal kid wins at Harding Park. That’s Field of Dreams stuff.