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Commentary: Meet Collin Morikawa, PGA champion and golf’s next big thing

Collin Morikawa kisses the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship.
Collin Morikawa kisses the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park.
(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Without spectators allowed at TPC Harding Park this week, although one pretty famous member of the Golden State Warriors known for his 3-point range found his way onto the course Sunday, the biggest distraction Collin Morikawa faced at the PGA Championship came Saturday afternoon at the 16th green.

The hole is bordered by Lake Merced, and two kayakers were creating a commotion, pointing and gesturing, trying to figure out who was Adam Scott, Morikawa’s playing partner that day and the former world No. 1 from Australia with the silky swing.

They got it all wrong. They should have been trying to find Collin Morikawa.

He emerged Sunday from the fog of a tight leaderboard loaded with some of the biggest names in golf, shot a bogey-free 64 that equaled the lowest final round by a PGA champion, won by two strokes and became the seventh player since 1934 to claim a major in his first or second start.

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The only three other players to win the PGA before age 24: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

“Any time you’re in the conversation of the greats, Jack, Rory, Tiger, no matter who it is,” said Morikawa, who turns 24 in February, “you’re doing something well.”

But here’s the thing about it: You shouldn’t be surprised.

Paul Casey isn’t.

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The 43-year-old tour vet from England with 20 professional victories has seen rookies come and go. He saw something instantly in Morikawa when he turned pro last summer.

“Yeah, look, there’s always kind of a new wave,” Casey was saying Sunday after finishing in second place, two strokes behind the kid 20 years younger. “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 he was in. But you know, I can consider myself veteran. I’ve been around the block, so I know talent when I see it.

“I don’t like the term ‘talent,’ but you know when somebody is good, and Collin was good. We could just tell. Those of us who knew, knew that was the cat that we kind of – he’s the one. Even if the media weren’t talking, that’s where we were focusing our attention. And we weren’t wrong.”

Here’s the other reason you shouldn’t be surprised: Morikawa isn’t, either.

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You can talk about course management and maturity beyond his years. You can talk about his sublime iron game, about his distance control, about never picking the wrong club, about his accuracy (first this week in proximity to the pin). You can talk about his driving accuracy and putting (also both first).

But the real reason we might be seeing something more than a young guy who got hot in a major without the pressure on Sunday galleries is something else, less between the ropes than between the ears. He’s very cool. He’s very confident.

Serene, poised, focused, cerebral, analytical, unflappable. And driven. Really, really driven.

“I feel very comfortable in this position,” he kept saying Sunday.

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And: “I don’t know about you guys, but yeah, I’ve believed in myself since day one … I haven’t let up from that.”

And: “When I woke up today, I was like, this is meant to be. This is where I want to be, and I’m not scared from it.”

And: “For me, it doesn’t stop here. I’ve got a very good taste of what this is like, what a major championship is like.”

Steph Curry also made his way into the interview tent and, wearing a mask and hat, asked Morikawa a question. Wanted to know if he’s a leaderboard watcher on the back nine Sunday at a major or he’d rather not know.

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“Yeah, I do look at leaderboards,” Morikawa said after first asking Curry to take off his mask so he could see him. “I want to know where I’m at. Why not? I don’t think it affects me … I knew where I stood stepping on 16 tee.”

He knew that Casey, one hole ahead, had just tied him at 11-under. He also knew that 16 was a reachable par-4 at 294 yards and set up perfectly for a baby cut with his driver into the heavy, ocean wind.

He hit it 291, then made the eagle putt for a two-stroke cushion.

Casey was on the adjacent 17th tee when turned and saw Morikawa’s tee shot rolling up the green toward the hole.

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“Nothing I can do except tip my hat,” Casey said. “Phenomenal shot.”

“I was joking with him,” said Cameron Champ, his playing partner Sunday. “The shot on 16 looked like it was out of a video game … Definitely the shot of the tournament.”

Fourteen months removed from college golf, he’s already got three tour victories, a major title and a No. 5 world ranking. He also made his first 22 cuts before missing one, falling short of Woods’ record of 25. It would be four victories had he not botched a pair of short putts, one on the 72nd hole, the other in the playoff against Daniel Berger, at the Charles Schwab Challenge in June in Texas.

Cal coach Walter Chun knew that wouldn’t rattle him. Knew because, after the Bears finished fourth at a team event even though two top players were missing that week and Chun intimated it was a good result under the circumstances, Morikawa pulled him aside.

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“He called me out on it,” Chun told PGATour.com earlier this year. “It was one-on-one, very respectful. He taught me a lot about being a coach. He’s so driven. It’s part of what made him the player he was, and what makes him the player he is.”

And will be.

Morikawa returned to the 18th green for the championship ceremony and was handed the venerable Wanamaker Trophy that is 28 inches high, 27 inches from handle to handle and weighs 28 pounds. He hoisted over his head … and the silver lid tumbled off behind him onto the green.

Rookie mistake.

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But rookie no longer.

As he sat and waited for his turn in the interview tent, Dustin Johnson, the third-round leader who finished tied with Casey for second, walked past him on his way to the parking lot. Johnson pointed at him and offered his congratulations.

Welcome to the show, kid.


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