As Collin Morikawa, just 23 years old, took command of the PGA Championship late on Sunday evening, I couldn’t help but think of two moments.
The first was just a little over five years ago when we watched the coronation of Jordan Spieth as the then-21-year-old dominated the Masters for his first major victory. His ascendency was meteoric — capturing two U.S. Junior Am titles, playing on the 2011 U.S. Walker Cup team, winning a national championship at the University of Texas, turning professional midway through his sophomore year and then cashing in almost immediately with a victory at the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic — that his stardom seemed inevitable. He won with charm and a sense of relatability, picking apart golf courses with his brain as much as his physical tools.
Spieth’s recent trip to the wilderness aside, Morikawa is strikingly similar. He spent more time in college, going four years at the University of California-Berkeley, but his precociousness and polished game have led to a scary level of success early in his career. Morikawa went from having no PGA Tour status to winning three titles in just over a year, notching 15 top-25 finishes in 27 professional starts.
He has as many major victories as he does missed cuts. And the way he got there was by shooting 65-64 on the weekend at TPC Harding Park, the lowest weekend score by a winner in major championship golf history. Morikawa joins Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Rory McIlroy as the only players to win a PGA Championship before turning 24 years old.
Like Spieth before him, Morikawa doesn’t have the traits to overpower a course with length. On a PGA Championship leaderboard littered with bombers who down several protein shakes a day, it was the kid who ranks 110th in driving distance who won the tournament.
He did it the traditional way with a classic golf swing that lacks flash but produces consistent results. Morikawa led the field in fairways hit and proximity to the hole with his approaches. And after being widely criticized for the one glaring flaw in his game — struggles with a putting stroke that made everyone nervous the closer he got to the hole — Morikawa was first in strokes gained putting.
When Spieth won the 2015 Masters, we all wondered what his ceiling would become. He’s won two more majors and has 11 PGA Tour wins total, but dare we say that Morikawa’s ceiling may be slightly higher. His swing is more fundamentally sound, his mental game less polluted with scar tissue. Morikawa will find himself in a slump at some point in his career, but don’t bet on them lasting long.
The other memory I went back to when Morikawa lifted the Wanamaker Trophy was about the venue where he won.
In the summer of 2018, I flew out to San Francisco on a cold, foggy morning and had what you would describe as a quintessential experience for “The City”. I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, parked up in the Marin Headlands and walked down to the Battery Spencer for a picturesque view. I watched the seals bark at Fisherman’s Wharf. And of course I had to wind back and forth down Lombard Street. The classic tourist checklist.
But the most genuine San Francisco experience I had was at TPC Harding Park, an unassuming public course less than a mile from ultra-private meccas Olympic Club, San Francisco Golf Club and Lake Merced Golf Club.
Harding Park, site of last week’s PGA Championship, is a truly unapologetic municipal course, so much so that it was once used as a fan parking lot when Olympic Club hosted the 1998 U.S. Open. That was back when it had fallen on difficult times, the course’s net income going directly into the city’s general fund, a scenario that led to poor maintenance. Weeds joined into the rough, the bunkers eroded into something closer to quicksand and the greens became choppy.
It was Sandy Tatum, the 1942 NCAA champion at Stanford, who convinced then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem that the Tour should invest in the facility. The late Tatum has a statue on the property, and deservedly so — the course has been returned to its original glory that it once enjoyed back in the 20’s and 30’s when many considered it the second-best municipal course in the world behind the Old Course at St. Andrews.
The entrance to the course jarringly cuts through the dramatic 18th hole and drops golfers off at a parking lot that borders a small practice range full of mats and people waiting to hit. Every ethnicity, age and ability of player is represented. Near the first tee, players and their push carts gather, sorting out the details of the day’s match. If you live in San Francisco, a tee time is around $80; if you are from elsewhere but still in the Bay Area, it’s $200; but if you are from anywhere else in the world, it’s $300. For that reason, you will find a large contingent of locals who make Harding Park their weekly game.
In the clubhouse, which from the outside could pass for an ordinary four-bedroom home, a grille looks out over the finishing hole where players ascend a hill looking out over Lake Merced. Typically the biggest tournament played on the layout is the San Francisco City Championship, an amateur event of average joes that has been contested every year since 1916, the oldest consecutively played golf tournament in the world. This past week, it was their first major championship and Collin Morikawa making that same walk everyone else does.
The course itself reflects the people who play there. Harding Park features no water hazards or blind shots or greens with roller coaster greens. It’s framed by towering cypress trees and inviting corridors, with few opportunities for lost balls. The fairway bunkers are firm with no large lips. The rough, which was thick this week for the tournament, is patchy and playable. The defining characteristic of the course is a set of greens that look simple but contain subtle breaks, flummoxing everyone from 30-handicaps to Rory McIlroy.
That’s how it played throughout the tournament, holding firm against the world’s best while also providing plenty of entertainment. The birdie holes were out there, such as the short par-4 7th, reachable par-5 10th and drivable par-4 16th, but it demanded shot-making like Morikawa provided on the weekend.
It’s only fitting that Morikawa, a California native who spent his college years in the Bay Area, would win his first major as Harding Park made its major debut. For as much as golf doesn’t make sense sometimes, there are moments like this that match perfectly.
And in Collin Morikawa’s case, this won’t be the last time that happens.