Collin Morikawa Wins British Open at 24 Years Old

July 20, 2021


Collin Morikawa won The Open Championship on Sunday, July 18, at Royal St. George’s in the South East of England, coming from behind to triumph by two shots at 15 under par. It was the ideal capper to a historic year for Morikawa, who’s now firmly one of golf’s biggest stars. It also revealed Morikawa as the biggest winner to come out of a rare, weird year in the sport.

When COVID-19 halted every sport in the spring of 2020, it created a once-in-a-lifetime scheduling fluke in the world of men’s professional golf. There are four majors every year, but the pandemic delayed three of last year’s and led to a one-year skipping of The Open. The result was an unprecedented stretch—that started in August 2020—of seven majors in 11 months. That included three delayed 2020 events and the typical slate of four for 2021. There had never been so much high-stakes golf packed so tightly together on the calendar.

In addition to generating lots of good television, the unusual calendar presented an opportunity for the world’s best players. For years, the two men who carried the sport’s public image for most of the 21st century—Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson—had been fading. Not that they couldn’t still win, as Woods demonstrated at the 2019 Masters and Mickelson recently showed at the 2021 PGA Championship, but they were preparing to pass the proverbial baton to a group of impressive, athletic young players who could hit the ball a mile and had already started to stack their own piles of major trophies, commercials, and endorsements. The “11 majors in seven months” schedule was a chance for any of those players to set himself apart. Stay at the top of your game for a year, and you might win a couple huge tournaments.

It turns out the player to do it is Morikawa. He won the first post-shutdown major, the 2020 PGA Championship at Harding Park, and he’s now bookended the slate with another win at Royal St. George’s. In the process, the 24-year-old Californian made all kinds of history, including becoming the first player to ever win his debut start at two different majors. He also demonstrated he’ll be a force every time he tees up for many years to come.

The Open has a way of humbling the world’s best golfers, but Morikawa beat it back.

The R&A, the British governing body that runs the tournament, has over the years perfected the art of making The Open into one of sports’ biggest pressure cookers. It’s been the site of some notable meltdowns in golf history. Perhaps the most notable was when Jean van de Velde blew a three-stroke lead on the 18th hole at Carnoustie in 1999. The Open can also be tricky for American players who aren’t used to Britain’s links style of golf, where the sea-side courses are subject to swirling winds and other difficult weather.

Morikawa was unbothered, especially as the week wore on. He bogeyed two of his first five holes in Saturday’s third round, then didn’t play another hole over par the rest of the weekend (a stretch of 31 holes). It had echoes of his 2020 PGA win, when he also played his last round bogey-free. But this week, it wasn’t as easy as Morikawa’s scorecard made it look. He hit 60.7 percent of Royal St. George’s fairways, just a shade above the field average of 58.4 percent. He had to play often out of the course’s waist-high hay rough. And he did so brilliantly, making enough recoveries to keep his score moving in the right direction.

He started Sunday in second place but quickly passed South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, who once again will have to deal with some near-miss heartbreak after a major. Once Morikawa had the lead, he held off one of the sport’s best major players, Jordan Spieth, who tied with Oosthuizen for second.

Morikawa might be the world’s best ball-striker. To win, he relied on being more than that.

Nobody plays their irons better than Morikawa. Over the last six months, he’s gained an average of 1.6 strokes on the field per round with his approach shots alone, according to analytics site DataGolf. Nobody else has been close to his numbers. And he hit some beautiful approaches at Royal St. George’s. But he also had some mis-hits and needed to save himself around the greens, where advanced stats say he is below average on the PGA Tour.

You wouldn’t know it by some of the shots and putts he pulled off this weekend. The iciest was an up-and-down on the 10th hole on Sunday, when Morikawa led by three but seemed in danger of dropping a shot (or two) to Spieth. Morikawa had other ideas. He knocked a touchy chip shot to 15 away from the hole, then made a tester of a putt to keep Spieth at arm’s length. He kept them there for the rest of his round.

“Everything about my stats say I’m not a good putter statistically,” Morikawa told reporters after his win. “I feel like I can get a lot better. But in these situations, I feel like everything is thrown off the table. Forget about all your stats.”

In the big moments, Morikawa executed. It was an all-time great putting performance.

Now, in a ridiculously good pack of young American golfers, Morikawa might be the leader.

At. No. 3 in the world overall Morikawa is not the best U.S. player overall just yet. (That’s Dustin Johnson, who fell just behind Spain’s Jon Rahm and is now the No. 2 player.) But Morikawa, at 24, has tied Johnson, 37, with two majors. Winning The Open moved Morikawa up from No. 4 in the world, past fellow American Justin Thomas.

Morikawa has more major wins than all but one of his 20- or early-30-something peers in the top 10 of the world ranking. (Brooks Koepka has four. Thomas, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, and Patrick Reed all have either zero or one.) Nobody is presently playing better.

The last 11 months have shown Morikawa can beat anyone. They’ve also shown he can do it on at least two continents, and on drastically different types of courses. He’ll be a critical player for the American Ryder Cup team this September, and likely every two years after that for the foreseeable future. Morikawa’s prodigious talent and ball-striking ability will ensure he always has a chance to contend, and his unflappability will give him a strong chance to deliver on all of his promise. What he just showed in England was a preview of more to come.

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