Travelers Championship officials are known for regularly handing out sponsors’ exemptions to some of the best young golfers in the world, and they REALLY knew what they were doing in 2019 when four invites went to the world’s top-ranked amateurs in the world.
When Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolff and Zach Sucher held a joint press conference two days before the start of the long-running PGA Tour event at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, they all were engaging and entertaining in their own way, but one stood out: Collin Morikawa.
Morikawa joined the PGA Tour as the most celebrated of the group, having won numerous major amateur events, including the Northeast Amateur at Wannamoissett Country Club in Rumford, R.I., and setting an all-time NCAA single-season scoring record of 68.75 in his senior year at the University of California.
He, Hovland and Wolff each notched wins in their first four months on the PGA Tour, but Morikawa has set himself apart from the others in little more than two years.
On Sunday in his first real test of links golf, Morikawa became the first player to win two major championships in his first attempt when he went bogey-free the final 31 holes to shoot a 15-under-par 265 and beat 2017 Travelers Championship winner Jordan Spieth by two strokes in The Open Championship at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, England.
Morikawa, who also rallied to capture the 2020 PGA Championship when he went the final 23 holes without a bogey, finished one stroke shy of the 72-hole major championship record shot by Henrik Stenson in the 2016 Open Championship.
Morikawa played far beyond his 24 years as he went 6-for-6 saving par in the final round while shooting 6 under the last 12 holes. His second major win came in only his eighth start, enabling him to join Bobby Jones nearly a century ago in that elite category. He also joined Tiger Woods as the only players to win The Open and PGA Championship before 25, and he, Woods, Jones, Spieth, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Rory McIlroy are the only multiple major winners before 25 in the last 100 years. Additionally, he joined Greg Norman (1993), Nick Price (1994), Woods (2000), Stenson (2016) and Spieth (2017) as the only players to record four rounds in the 60s in golf’s oldest major.
So it was hardly a surprise that as Morikawa closed in on his historic victory, NBC commentator Paul Azinger said, “Collin is the most mature young player that I’ve seen since Tiger Woods.”
Some might consider that hyperbole, but Morikawa did indeed demonstrate the game, guile and confidence of a veteran major champion while overtaking mistake-prone Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open winner, and never flinching as Spieth made a late charge.
“When you make history – and I’m 24 years old – it’s hard to grasp,” Morikawa said.
While holding the prized claret jug on the 18th green during the awards ceremony, the outwardly mature Morikawa began his victory speech not talking about himself but paying tribute to Matthias Schmid of Germany, who won the silver medal as low amateur.
“It feels like literally two years ago I was an amateur,” Morikawa told Schmid.
Morikawa then revealed how terrific he felt with fans being present for the tournament after he won the PGA Championship in virtual silence.
“This is one of the greatest experiences of my life to see all you folks out here again,” he said.
After thanking his family and girlfriend who weren’t able to attend, he told the fans that his caddie, J.J. Jakovic, was celebrating his 39th birthday and they responded by singing “Happy Birthday.”
Going to a claw grip on short putts at the urging of 1998 Masters and British Open champion Mark O’Meara has been a major reason for his climb to No. 1 in the FedExCup standings and No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking. That helped supplement one of the best iron games and a steadiness off the tee thanks largely to a strong 3-wood. He also is known for boldly hitting driver on the short par-4 16th hole at Harding Park in San Francisco to 7 feet and making eagle on the way to his PGA Championship win.
“He’s got the potential and the game, and the head, to be able to manage any kind of bumps in the road,” Spieth said.
And Spieth certainly knows all about bumps. After winning the Travelers Championship with a 61-foot bunker shot on the first playoff hole to beat Daniel Berger and then capturing The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale a month later, Spieth was No. 1 in the world at 23. But he went nearly four years without winning until the Valero Texas Open on April 4, having to rebuild his swing and confidence to climb from 83rd in the rankings up to No. 14.
Though the process remains ongoing, Spieth has certainly shown he’s well on his way to recovery, a pleasant situation for many considering never complained throughout his doldrums. The Open was his 11th top-four finish in a major championship and tied the lowest score by a runner-up at The Open set in 2016 by Phil Mickelson.
But for now, the golfing world is Collin Morikawa’s oyster. His five victories in 52 starts since turning pro include the two majors and a World Golf Championship. He is leading the points list on the PGA Tour and European Tour and is No. 1 in the Ryder Cup standings. Now he hopes to be able to recover from his latest major success and be ready to go from a silver jug to a gold medal as member of Team USA with Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau in the Tokyo Olympics next week.
“It’s so hard to look back at the two short years that I have been a pro and see what I’ve done because I want more,” said Morikawa, who entered The Open 124th in putting but was No. 1 last week.
“I enjoy these moments and I love it, and I want to teach myself to embrace it a little more.”
It’s the kind of maturity and confidence that I heard in spades in that pre-Travelers Championship press conference 25 months ago.