SAN FRANCISCO – Way back when Collin Morikawa was still meeting friends at Pappy’s Grill & Sports Bar and dreaming of life outside of college – you know, 15 months ago – TPC Harding Park was part of his story.
Walter Chun, Morikawa’s coach at the University of California-Berkeley, figures it’s only about 20 miles from campus to Harding Park but he’s lived in the Bay Area long enough to know the inconvenience of relative proximity - “with the bridge and all,” it’s normally about an hour’s drive.
Chun holds practices at local courses on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and he picked Mondays for his team to play Harding Park. There’s something blue-collar, almost workmanlike about the iconic municipal layout, much like Morikawa.
With a smile that could burn through the heaviest marine layer and the rare ability to know when to talk and when to listen, Chun describes Morikawa as “an old soul.”
“His mentality is that of a 50-year-old in a 23-year-old body,” Chun said with a laugh.
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Morikawa needed every ounce of that uncommon maturity on Sunday at the PGA Championship. This was the first major played in 13 months. The pandemic may have robbed the event of fans, and for the better part of three days the buzz that comes with major championship golf, but not the final-round drama.
A crowded leaderboard nearly reached capacity early on a cold day along Lake Merced before the trailing groups even reached the turn, with 10 players either leading or within two shots of the lead. And the moment became even more volatile over the week’s final two hours. All total, nine players held at least a share of the lead with the height of confusion coming when Paul Casey birdied the 14th hole to round out a seven-way tie for the lead.
The last man out turn off the lights, please.
“I saw on 12, we were all having a party at 10 under. Who is going to break out? Who is going to be the oddball out to separate themselves?” Morikawa said. “I knew someone was going to have to break out.”
For the better part of the day it was anything but Separation Sunday and of the 14 players who remained on the course late into the afternoon, nine were either co-leaders or contending within two shots, which might have made a mockery of social distancing guidelines but filled an entertainment void left by months of quarantine.
Even without the pull of fans and the traditional distractions that come with winning a major, this was the type of intensity that players spend their lives learning to embrace. The likes of Dustin Johnson, the overnight leader who has almost as many PGA Tour victories (21) as Morikawa has birthdays, and Paul Casey, who was competing in his 64th major, had that experience.
But it was Morikawa who emerged from the fog with authority, a distinct levelheadedness and a career-defining shot at the 16th hole to set up a walk-off eagle.
There was no fist pump. No wild celebration. None of the theatrics one would expect from a 20-something who is just 15 months removed from college. Part of this was the absence of fans and part of it was Morikawa’s maturity.
“Has it been a year [since Morikawa was in college]?” Brooks Koepka asked. “It’s impressive.”
Koepka is a hard man to impress, but then every bit of Morikawa’s performance at Harding Park was age defying.
“I feel very comfortable in this position,” said Morikawa, who closed with weekend rounds of 65-64 for a two-stroke victory over Casey and Johnson. “But it was going to take a very, very good round today, and I knew with the leaderboard the way it was looking and everyone out there, you just had to play well.”
If Morikawa seems too good to be the genuine article it’s because he is. In college he didn’t miss practices. He didn’t have issues with his grades and even as an obvious prodigy he always put the team first.
“The best teammate you could ask for. Very supportive. He was one of the guys,” Chun said. “We all knew he was the talented young gun, but for him it was always about the team.”
It’s easy to imagine that smile lighting up the Cal team room. What wasn’t so easy to imagine until Sunday’s show was how the affable youngster would hold up on the grand stage. Already a two-time winner on Tour no one questioned his game, but on a day when golf’s very best were grinding, the 5-foot-9 Los Angeles native didn’t exactly cast an intimidating shadow.
But for those who have been paying attention, beyond that effervescent smile and calm demeanor is a driven competitor.
“There's always a bunch of guys that rock up on the scene, and he didn't necessarily get the most publicity out of the group, [but] I know talent when I see it,” Casey said. “We could just tell. Those of us who knew, knew that was the cat, he's the one.”
That unquantifiable element was there in June in the restart opener at Colonial when Morikawa dropped a playoff decision to Daniel Berger and conceded afterward that he allowed himself to be drawn out of the moment.
At last month’s Workday Charity Open, he learned from that mistake and withstood a playoff haymaker on the first extra hole to eventually beat former world No. 1 Justin Thomas [Jon Rahm retook the top spot this week].
As learning curves go, this one has been impressively steep and on Sunday against a “who’s who” of the game’s best and brightest Morikawa made something that is immeasurably difficult look amazingly easy.
Morikawa only played Harding Park about a dozen times while he was at Cal, including a 2018 tournament where he finished tied for fifth place, but part of his growing legend is that it was all he needed.
“I heard before he went to Harding Park he was able to regurgitate where you needed to be, pin locations, the best angles for different greens,” said Chun, who also pointed out that Morikawa holds the course record at nearby Lake Merced. “I believe he has close to a photographic memory. Some guys have a tough time remembering, but not Collin.”
Golf will remember everything about this championship for several reasons: the first major played in a pandemic; the first major played in 13 months; the first major played at Harding Park.
That Morikawa would win the first of what many believe will be more majors on San Francisco’s beloved muni was only fitting considering the role Harding Park played in his development.
It’s a story of proximity, whether it’s across the Bay Bridge at Pappy’s or just 20 minutes into town to 710 Ashbury Street, the storied home of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and the 1967 Summer of Love.
It’s apropos that golf’s long strange trip and the summer of self-isolation would wind to Harding Park and a performance by Morikawa that was truly ageless.