- Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
- Covered golf for more than 20 years
- Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University
SAN FRANCISCO — The shot elicited barely a whimper, a smattering of cheers and claps reminiscent of his college days at nearby Cal, but one that deserved the kind of delirium you come to expect in such moments on golf’s biggest stage.
Collin Morikawa will have to settle for the shot seen — but not heard — around the world, an epic driver to the 16th green Sunday at TPC Harding Park that set up an eagle putt and a two-shot victory at the PGA Championship.
There might not have been any noise, but Morikawa loudly announced himself to the masses with that shot while helping him forge ahead of a packed leaderboard to become a winner at golf’s first major championship of the pandemic-plagued 2020 season.
Imagine the scene in normal times.
“This is the one time I really wish there were crowds right there,” Morikawa said. “I was just praying for a straight bounce short of the green on to the green, and then after it bounced it kind of got behind a tree that we couldn’t see around the corner. So once it bounced, I was like, OK, I will take it anywhere it is, because it is on the green, whether it’s short, long, and I peeked around right at the tee and looked around the tree and it looked really, really good.
“So I heard some claps, but not a ton. They could mean I was on the green and 50 feet.”
Think of the massive galleries at Bellerive two years ago, or all the bellowing New Yorkers a year ago at Bethpage Black. Morikawa would have gone deaf, the decibels ear-shattering.
Instead, there was no way he could really know that the ball cozied up 7 feet from the cup, as spectators were not permitted due to the pandemic, and only a few dozen volunteers and media people were on the course.
Morikawa, 23, finished two shots ahead of England’s Paul Casey, who is 20 years older and was bidding to become the third-oldest player to win his first major championship. Casey had nothing to be ashamed of, shooting a final-round 66 that was better than all but one player.
But standing on the 17th tee tied for the lead, he turned around to see Morikawa’s tee shot from 294 yards at the par-4 16th land short of the green, bound up onto the putting surface and then run every-so-slowly up toward the hole.
“What a glorious shot,” Casey said. “He thoroughly deserves it. Nothing you can do but tip your cap to that. When he popped up on tour not that long ago, those guys who were paying attention like myself knew he was something special, and he’s proved it [on Sunday]. He’s already sort of proved it but he’s really stamped his authority of how good he is [Sunday].”
Just 15 months ago, Morikawa was still in college. And like many of his peers, such as Matthew Wolff — who tied for fourth — and Viktor Hovland who joined him right out of school, there is no fear, no backing down.
He won an opposite-field tour event last fall, lost in a playoff to Daniel Berger at the Charles Schwab Challenge in June and then beat Justin Thomas at the Workday Charity Open last month.
The PGA was is his second major championship, making him one of just six players in the Masters era to win in their second major start or fewer.
Now he’s ranked fifth in the world, with a chance to go to No. 1 as early as the Northern Trust in two weeks.
“He’s a hell of a player,” said Brooks Koepka, whose run at a third straight PGA ended with a 74. “You see guys coming out of college now, they are ready to win. Prime example I think of that group, him, Matt Wolff, Viktor Hovland. It’s impressive what they do. They come out of college and they’re ready to play out here.”
Morikawa was among a group of seven players tied for the lead at 10 under par that included Wolff, Casey, Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau, Jason Day and Scottie Scheffler.
He broke the tie by chipping in for a birdie from 50 feet at the 14th hole and then came the drama at the 16th, where he had vowed earlier in the week he would not attempt to drive the green at the short par 4.
But conditions were favorable to make it worthwhile, and Morikawa knew that if he landed the ball in the 275-yard range, there was a good chance it would hop up onto the green to a pin that was 294 yards away. And it could not have come off more perfect. Casey had just tied him by birdieing the hole in front of him, then witnessed the incredible.
“When he hit it, it came off perfect and you could see it was starting to float perfectly to the hole,” said Cameron Champ, who played with Morikawa and tied for 10th. “And we’re looking at it, and hopefully it got a straight bounce and it did, and it just bounced right up there. I would definitely say that was the shot of the tournament and pretty awesome to watch.”
Champ led the field in driving distance for the week, but it was Morikawa — who was tied for 36th in that category — who hit the drive of the year. Of course, to then not make the putt would have been deflating.
Think Corey Pavin with the great 4-wood shot to the final green of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock in 1995. Or Phil Mickelson’s 6-iron shot through the pine trees at Augusta National at the 13th at the 2010 Maters. Both players missed the short putts, although they still won.
Not only did Morikawa pull off the great shot, he converted the putt, too.
“You had to make it,” he said. “I had to make that putt. Two strokes is a lot different than one coming down 18.”
Morikawa’s girlfriend, Kathryn Zhu, was, fortunately, there to witness it in person. A former college golfer at Pepperdine, Zhu was in town with Morikawa but unable to attend the tournament until Sunday due to the various coronavirus pandemic restrictions put in place.
“So glad I was able to come out [Sunday],” she said. “Feel so lucky that I got to watch. It was so much fun to be able to be here.”
No other family members were permitted, so Morikawa and Zhu were forced to giddily FaceTime with his parents, Blaine and Debbie and brother Garrett in Los Angeles, as they waited the trophy ceremony.
Under the circumstances, it had to be that way.
But if there is any justice, when Morikawa returns to defend his title next May at Kiawah Island, he will get the loudest, longest ovation — one that could be heard around the world.
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