WILMINGTON, Del. – The success that had come so easily was beginning to elude Collin Morikawa. Nearly at the end of a winless season, he missed the cut in his title defense at The Open and was growing impatient.
His caddie, J.J. Jakovac, pulled him aside.
“I’ve been around the game long enough to know that it doesn’t matter who you are – it’ll test you,” Jakovac told him. “It can be ball-striking, mental game, whatever. It’s going to test you at some point in your career.”
And this, clearly, was Morikawa’s first test.
His transition to the pro game has been so smooth, so seamless, that it seemed unimaginable that he’d go through his third full season without a victory. But here he is at the BMW Championship, the penultimate event on the schedule, without a PGA Tour win in 13 months. Having entered the playoffs in the first or second position in his young career, this time he sat 23rd – not yet secure for the Tour Championship.
Most Tour types still would have been thrilled with that body of work. Not Morikawa.
“It absolutely has [been a frustrating year],” he said. “I’ve said it since Day 1: Obviously I want to win and I want to keep winning, but I want to be consistent. And there just hasn’t been any of that this year.”
Morikawa has been a world-beater for more than a decade, right around the time he switched to a cut shot with longtime swing coach Rick Sessinghaus. While in college at Cal, he posted top-5 finishes in nearly half his career starts. He won almost immediately on Tour and cemented himself as one of the game’s preeminent iron players. By 24, he was a two-time major winner.
But at the beginning of the new year, just as he was approaching the No. 1 world ranking, his swing started to feel off-kilter. Used to aiming down the left side and bleeding his shot back to the right, Morikawa stopped seeing that familiar pattern. Occasionally, in fact, it did the opposite, and that only deepened his anxiety. At the U.S. Open, he resigned himself to (gasp) hitting a draw.
It's here that we must note that Morikawa is talented enough that he still posted top-5 finishes in two majors this year. That he still racked up eight top-10s overall. That he still ranked 19th on Tour in ball-striking.
“But you can play blindfolded and get lucky one week, and that’s what I was doing,” he said. “I was lying to myself that I was fixing it, when we didn’t really know the answer.”
That was apparent during the back-to-back missed cuts in Scotland, which included the Scottish Open. He knew he needed a “total reset.”
“He’s the right kind of guy to go through this,” Jakovac said, “because he’s going to persevere and keep trying to figure it out. He still has a good attitude on the course most of the time, but he also has the fire and drive to want to dig it out.
“I think it helps when you have the success that he’s had – you know it’s going to come back.”
Even while on vacation in London and Paris, Morikawa kept trying to find the elusive answers. In hotel rooms he’d rehearse his swings in the mirror, looking for any flaws. “It’s hard,” he said, “because you can look at video all you want, but it’s hard to dissect something so small.”
It was Jakovac who discovered the minute detail.
Once back home in Las Vegas, Jakovac began filming Morikawa in slow motion and noticed, from face-on, that Morikawa’s left knee was collapsing leading into impact instead of firing out of the way.
“That’s why he’s such a great ball-striker, because his body moves incredibly well,” Jakovac said. “I just told him, ‘It doesn’t seem like you’re clearing as well as you normally can, so maybe it’s a physical limitation.’”
Morikawa showed his trainers in Los Angeles (whom he hadn’t seen in months) and, sure enough, they agreed – he was locked up. Not activating. Morikawa flew them out the next day to Vegas for a three-day training camp.
“Even though I’m 25 and feel good,” he said, “that doesn’t mean everything is in the right spot. The reason I hit such a good cut is I clear my hips and body so well. But if I can’t clear my hips and my knees, you get in this stuck position – that’s what a lot of amateurs get. It’s like a 20-handicapper getting stuck, and that’s frustrating.”
Morikawa and Jakovac linked back up in Memphis the following week for the start of the playoffs, and the range sessions looked familiar.
“It was so nice to see that ball fall back right,” Morikawa said, grinning. “It just felt like my game.”
“Last week wasn’t incredible,” Jakovac said, “but it was close to the old Collin that we’d been missing for a while.”
The result was close to the old Collin, too – a tie for fifth at the FedEx St. Jude Championship, including a few misses late on the back nine that could have put him in the playoff. Morikawa had also returned to a conventional putting style, abandoning the saw grip that had won him his second of two majors and seen him improve nearly 100 spots in strokes gained: putting.
“It’s just been a little off,” he said, “and I started rolling it nice, and I was just like, Hey, why not?”
His 4-under 67 to start this BMW Championship, putting him three shots off the early lead, was the continuation of last week’s resurgent form. In the opening round at Wilmington Country Club, he hit 10 fairways, missed only two greens and gained nearly a shot on the greens. It was – “sad to say,” he admitted – the most control he’s had over the ball all year.
“When he’s swinging that clean like he was today,” Jakovac said, “it’s almost hard for him to not play well.”
As Morikawa was quick to remind: It’s been a disappointing season, but it’s not over yet.
The last two years, he has ended the regular season ranked first and second, respectively, in the FedExCup, only to drag across the finish line. In 2020, after winning the PGA, he didn’t handle the whirlwind well and rallied just to finish sixth in the season-long race. Last year, his body in knots after the Olympics, he slid all the way to 26th.
“This is the first year I feel like I came ready to play golf,” he said.
Major season might be over, and he won’t win Player of the Year, and it won’t go down as his most memorable campaign, but Morikawa still has 18 million reasons to finish strong.
“It’s definitely a good time of year to be on the upswing,” Jakovac said.
A fade has never looked better.