Sports

For Collin Morikawa, a Young Career Full of Firsts

Collin Morikawa enters this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship fresh off an accomplishment no other American golfer has matched. He was the first to win the Race to Dubai, the season-long points race on the European Tour, now the DP World Tour. The HSBC kicks off the tour’s new season.

But the Race to Dubai accomplishment is just one of his trivia-worthy firsts. He won the P.G.A. Championship in 2020 and the British Open in 2021 on his first try in both tournaments, making him the first player to win two major championships on his first attempt.

He claimed the DP World Tour Championship in November by three strokes, cruising to victory in the tournament and claiming what was previously known as the European Tour’s Order of Merit.

“To put my name up there is big,” he said, noting great European players like Colin Montgomerie, Seve Ballesteros, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, whose names are on the Harry Vardon Trophy. “If you are the first to do something, you open up people’s eyes. Hopefully, it’s a pathway to focus on this.”

Keith Pelley, chief executive of the DP World Tour, said Morikawa was an incredible talent.

“To win the Open Championship in his first attempt was an amazing achievement, and to follow that by becoming the first American to win our Race to Dubai after his victory in our season-ending DP World Tour Championship was truly something special,” Pelley said.

Morikawa, who turns 25 next month, tries to put his accomplishment in the context of he is only just beginning. He pointed out that he might be entering his fourth season playing on the elite professional tours, but he has been a professional golfer for only two and a half years since he started in the middle of 2019 after graduating from college.

Morikawa with the claret jug after winning the British Open last year at the Royal St. George’s Golf Club.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It doesn’t really add up when I look at it like that,” he said. “When people said at the end of the season, how do you follow up on what you did last season, it’s not about following up. It’s about how do I add more goals. How do I keep raising the roof and the ceiling? If I check off one goal, I’m adding two more.”

His goal this season is straightforward: to move up just one spot in the world rankings. But as the current world No. 2, moving into the top spot requires Morikawa to overtake Jon Rahm, a young player from Spain.

“To get to No. 1 in the world, I’ve put myself in a position to possibly do that,” he said. “The short-term goals are to work on my body and the mental stuff. But the big goal is to get to No. 1 in the world, and not just to get to No. 1 in the world but to sustain it and stay up there.”

At the season-opening tournament on the PGA Tour earlier this month, the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, Morikawa did not shy away from what he needed to work on to accomplish his goal. After nearly driving the par-4 14th hole, Morikawa had the type of chip that many professional golfers relish: just off the green and uphill, an invitation to chip it in or at least leave a short tap-in putt for birdie.

As he stood over the ball, the TV commentators noted how much Morikawa had been struggling with this aspect of his game — something he acknowledged he needed to improve. In certain chipping and putting statistics, Morikawa is outside the top 100 players on tour, statistics that are incongruent with him as an elite player. However, he did hit that shot close.

“When you’re ranking below average, which I am over the past few years with my short game and putting, you have to work on it,” he said. “I’ve been able to get hot and have some good weeks for me, but it’s about the level of consistency for me. Being 170th in putting or whatever in chipping, it’s not good enough for me.” His putting is not quite that bad: He ranks 147th.

From an early age, Morikawa had his sights set on being a professional golfer, and he said a focus on constant improvement was at the heart of that.

Unlike many elite professional athletes, he attended and completed a top school, the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in business administration and won five times as a college golfer.

But those four years were not a hedge for a different career, he said, but a way to gain more knowledge for when he became a professional golfer. “People said, Cal was a great backup plan,” he said. “I never thought I had a backup plan. I knew I could use my degree for my professional career and my brand. There was never any wavering.”

Likewise, he never looked at the top players as heroes; they were future competition. He drew on his amateur success to keep the competition in perspective. And that meant sticking to his own game, as one of the best long-iron players in the game today.

That mind-set kept him from being intimidated. “I never looked at them as guys I’m going to have weak knees over when I see them,” he said. “The only guy like that was Tiger. All the guys I watched for countless years, I knew these guys were the best in the world, but I wasn’t afraid of them. At the end of the day, I still wanted to beat them.”

Comparisons to Tiger Woods came quickly for Morikawa. He had the second-longest streak of cuts made as a rookie — 22 to 25 for Woods. And after 60 events, he stacked up pretty favorably to Woods.

While Woods had more wins, top-10 finishes and a lower scoring average, according to Golf Digest research, Morikawa, at the same point, had two majors and a World Golf Championship to Woods’s one major.

Morikawa and Tiger Woods at the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Morikawa is circumspect in embracing comparisons to Woods, comparisons that have been made to plenty of other young players who began their careers hot only to cool off.

“I don’t think there will ever be another Tiger,” he said. “A lot of his records will be unbeatable. It doesn’t mean I can’t reach for them. But when you think about what he did, they’re a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Does he think he can beat some of the records? “Yes,” he said. “Are some of the records untouchable? Yes, but I’m going to try to push for them.”

Woods has recognized Morikawa’s play. “He doesn’t really do anything wrong,” Woods said in December on the Golf Channel. “He doesn’t really have wild misses. He’s super, super consistent, an unbelievable iron player.”

To that end, Morikawa is pushing to test his game around the world. Victories have given him an enviable tour status for someone in only his fourth season, one that allows him to pick and choose the events he wants to play in.

He could easily opt to play in just the United States and reduce some of the travel fatigue. But weeks before his 25th birthday, he said traveling to play golf is part of the fun at his age.

“I’ve been very fortunate early on to be able to choose my schedule, and that’s made it a lot easier,” he said.

“I’m not forcing myself to go play eight events a row on the PGA Tour, and with that balance I’ve been able to add in the DP World Tour. I wanted to see if my game traveled. I wanted to play internationally. And I put myself in a position to win the Road To Dubai in 2021.”

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