BRADENTON, Fla. – Two weeks ago, Collin Morikawa was desperate for a change. Arguably the premier iron player in the world, he also happened to be one of the worst putters – he ranked 213th out of 236 players on the PGA Tour. That massive disparity led to the often-used line: Well, if he could just make a few more putts ...
Because we’ve already seen what can happen when he marries the two together. At the PGA Championship last August, Morikawa led the field in approach play and putting, and with that unstoppable combination he beat the deepest field in golf for his breakthrough major title.
But that was just a hot week, not a preview of the rest of his career. Dating to his junior golf days, Morikawa has always relied on his iron play and struggled on his greens. “I’ve never felt comfortable,” he said. “You guys have all seen it.” His frustration finally boiled over two weeks ago, when he was practicing at home in Las Vegas. He had heard about Mark O’Meara’s “saw” putting grip, and he stopped and chatted with the two-time major champion for an hour at The Summit Club. Morikawa tried the saw the next day but made nothing.
And yet ...
“For some reason, I couldn’t sleep, and that’s never happened to me,” he said. “I’ve never thought about putting or golf this much in my life, because it felt so good. It just felt so different on how I was putting that I knew I was heading down the right path.”
Morikawa remained committed, even if his strokes-gained statistics the following week at Riviera were dreadful – last in the field.
“He’s like, ‘Are you worried about it?’” said Morikawa’s caddie, J.J. Jakovac. “And I said, ‘Not at all. Your stroke has a great flow to it. It looks better to me like that.’”
Morikawa stuck with it, oozing confidence despite not much statistical evidence to support his new stroke. His numbers weren’t off-the-charts great this week at Concession, either – but when paired with typically sublime iron play, his all-around play was plenty good enough to beat the best field of the year so far, with 47 of the top 50 players in the world.
With a 3-under 69 Sunday, Morikawa kept a host of challengers at bay and captured the World Golf Championships-Workday Championship by three shots over Brooks Koepka, Viktor Hovland and Billy Horschel. The 24-year-old joined Tiger Woods as the only players under the age of 25 to win both a major and a WGC event.
Not bad for a guy who supposedly can’t putt.
“If he starts rolling putts in, yeah, we always knew that. The stats show that,” Jakovac said. “If he’s rolling in putts, he’s going to beat most people because he hits it that good.”
On a steady trajectory through both the amateur and professional ranks, Morikawa felt an unfamiliar emotion after his PGA triumph last fall: contentment. Quite simply, he got lazy. He missed more cuts in a five-start span (three) than he had in his first full year on Tour (one). Before the Masters, he reset with his longtime coach Rick Sessinghaus and rededicated himself over the next two months.
“By the time this year started,” Morikawa said, “my game felt really, really good.”
Statistics are important, but fellow Tour players are often the best judges of talent. And they knew it was just a matter of time before Morikawa contended again.
“I’ve said for a year-plus now, he’s the one that everyone’s got to look out for,” said Horschel, who had a front-row seat to Morikawa’s stripe show on Sunday. “He doesn’t hit it 320 (yards), but if you can’t hit it straight and put it in the fairway, then it doesn’t give you any advantage. And he does a really good job of playing within himself.
“He’s a great iron player, but I don’t think people understand how great being an iron player out here is. Tiger (Woods) did that for years. Everyone talked about his distance, but he was the best iron player, best wedge player for a decade-plus, and that’s one of the reasons why he was so successful.”
Morikawa did his best to honor Woods with a Tiger-like performance at The Concession, holing the critical mid-range putts early in the round to steady himself, then snuffing the excitement out of the tournament with mistake-free golf coming home, including a 12-foot par saver on No. 11 and then a nifty up-and-down on 12 to push his lead to three shots.
For the week, Morikawa ranked 10th in the field in putting, gaining nearly four shots on the field – the second-best putting week of his Tour career, behind only the PGA.
“His putting stroke looks unbelievably good,” Horschel said.
So why is this not just another hot streak? Why does he feel confident that these weeks can be the norm, not the exception?
“Now I feel confident I can take the stroke out of play and I can just really focus on speed, I can focus on the line, how do I get that ball to fall in the hole where I want it,” Morikawa said. “That’s what’s really exciting for me.”
And terrifying for the rest of the field.