British Open 2021: Collin Morikawa relies on his wisdom and innocence to win historic second major
Collin Morikawa won the 149th Open Championship on Sunday over three other former major winners -- Jordan Spieth, Louis Oosthuizen and Jon Rahm -- with his third 4-under 66 of the week in his first-ever trip to the oldest golf tournament in the world. It's easy to forget that he's a kid. He doesn't talk like it, and he doesn't think like it. He sure swings like a kid, though. He walks and plays like one, too.
Before Sunday was Saturday. Morikawa was 2 over thru his first six holes and four down to playing partner Louis Oosthuizen, the 18-, 36- and eventual 54-hole leader. Morikawa didn't look lost, but it did appear as if the fade was on. It would not have been extraordinary. You're not supposed to put yourself in position to win -- much less actually win -- your first Open Championship. It is the major with the oldest average age for a champion over the last decade for a reason.
Then Morikawa ripped off eight birdies over his last 30 holes, including four on Sunday. He didn't make a single bogey in that span and found himself staring at the 5-pound Claret Jug filled with the names of men streets are named after and movies are made about.
It was not a rout in which the lead horse strutted through the finish line, though. No, Morikawa got in the mud with maybe the three best golfers in the world in 2021, and he didn't miss a single - damn - shot.
Morikawa is 24. A kid. He's also the top iron player in the world and probably the best since Tiger Woods. The numbers tell that story -- he hit 75% of his greens in regulation -- but so do the pictures.
He carved up Royal St. George's with a precision that would have made the man who engraved his name on that trophy jealous. Your favorite surgeon's favorite surgeon. Every hole from Thursday afternoon on was the darts scene from "Ted Lasso". Barbecue sauce.
Morikawa came into the week gaining about six strokes a tournament on the field with his iron play, and though there are no strokes-gained stats for the Open Championship, they certainly would have been even crazier than that. These are Woods-ian numbers. Morikawa's 1.6 strokes gained per round on approach shots is a number Tiger achieved (and sometimes usurped) for 20 straight years. That's the talent Morikawa possesses, and it's one way to describe how good he looked this week.
Still, you have to pour in a few big ones to win majors, and Morikawa did that over and again Sunday. He made a monster par putt on No. 10, a birdie from deep on No. 14, and another par he probably shouldn't have sunk on No. 15. All with Spieth breathing down his neck at a tournament the 2017 Open champion owns.
"Everything about my stats say I'm not a good putter statistically," said Morikawa. "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, who can perform well in these situations. That's why I think, over the past few majors, you've seen a lot of the same names up there because they believe in their game, they know what they're doing when they practice, and they're able to bring it out in these big moments."
Morikawa started this seven-majors-in-11-months run 341 days ago with his victory over Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau at the 2020 PGA Championship in Harding Park. He closed over Rahm, Oosthuizen and Spieth at Royal St. George's. He constructed an entire career in less than one calendar year, and that makes for some fun offseason dreaming.
"I think what's interesting with Collin, too … his other wins had come with little to no crowds … and then some with modified crowds," said Spieth. "Then you step into 35,000 and holding a lead down the stretch, I think is really impressive considering that's not only first Open Championship, but given the timing of when he's been out here. He spent a year, year and a half of that in essentially a crowd-less environment, and [this is] harder. It's harder with big crowds. You feel it more. You know where you are. It's a bigger stage. I think that's impressive."
The achievements for Morikawa to this point in his young career are startling, and Justin Ray broke many down in a concise fashion. Morikawa is the ...
• first golfer ever to win two majors in his event debuts (PGA Championship, Open)
• third golfer to win two or more majors in his first eight appearances (Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen)
• fourth American to win The Open before age 25 (Spieth, Jones, Woods)
• eighth golfer in the last 100 years to win multiple majors before age 25 (Sarazen, Jones, Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Woods, McIlroy, Spieth)
There's more. But we could be here all day.
What do I mean when I say Morikawa is a kid?
Read what he's done. Hear him speak. Watch him play. You'll probably think: That's no kid. And that's true. Wisdom is a skill, and he has plenty of it.
But Morikawa has not gone through the wars -- both on and off the course -- that age you as a golfer. He has not thought about not failing, because for the most part, he has not failed. Over the course of his first 49 PGA Tour events, he's won five times, including two majors. He's taken home $14 million. He has earned commercial deals. He's clean-cut and buttoned-up. He's fresh and likable. He has not made any public mistakes nor had to watch himself suffer.
"As you gain experience, you lose innocence," Padraig Harrington famously said at the PGA Championship earlier this year. "I suppose, if you drew a graph, there's a crossing point of equilibrium where you have some experience and a certain amount of innocence and enthusiasm.
"As you get a little bit older and you get all this experience, on paper, people might think you get better with experience. But as I said, you've seen a few things that you know in your game that you probably never wanted to see so you kind of lose that little bit of, I suppose, innocence. It's not everything it's cracked up to be to have experience."
Morikawa is in the equilibrium where his brain and his presence are that of a 44-year-old, but his body and swing don't know any better. You can't artificially create his current position. You can't construct a situation in which a golfer is thinking like Tiger and swinging like Hogan.
On a week in which the state of Rory McIlroy's game and mentality got discussed plenty, and in which Jordan Spieth literally ran off the field of play on Saturday evening to break down putting minutia with his coach, Morikawa played like a kid. He went after every feasible flag and swung with all the inhibition necessary to win an Open in one's first try.
McIlroy and Spieth are tremendous champions, but there are moments when you can almost literally see them thinking: I'm great, but wait ... am I great?! They are far wiser than they once were, but they are also a lot less innocent about their own failures as well as the allure of being the best golfer in the world.
That's natural as the pressures and demands of being a world-class player start to accumulate over the course of a career. Staying enamored with pro golf for long stretches of time is difficult, and it's why the beginning can often be the most freeing, wonderful part.
"I think when you make history -- and I'm 24 years old -- it's hard to grasp, and it's hard to really take it in," said Morikawa. "At 24 years old, 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. I enjoy these moments and I love it, and I want to teach myself to embrace it a little more, maybe spend a few extra days and sit back and drink out of this [jug].
"I just want more. When you're in these moments and you truly love what you do, which I love playing golf and competing against these guys, these are the best moments ever because the nerves push you to just be a better person."
One of the great joys in the sport is watching Morikawa launch an aerial attack on an historic venue, making some of the great ball-strikers of the last few decades look completely helpless. There's not much like him leaning like he's hit one out of bounds only to find out it was 18 inches offline. The center of every clubface in his bag is the least lonely place in the world of golf.
Morikawa himself is a joy. Even in his post-Open press conference, he was talking about competing and mixing it up with the best in the world. It's not difficult to tell how much he loves the exact thing we want so many of these guys to love.
"When I heard Brooks [Koepka] say at the  Travelers Championship, which was my third PGA Tour event as a pro, he said he was there to win," said Morikawa. "When he first turned pro, he was there to make cuts. Then he went to top 30s and top 20s and top 10s. From that day I just switched to, 'Let's go out and win.'"
That's innocence. That's being a kid. That's the best possible path forward for a young star.
These days, there are thousands of ways to get into your own head. We sometimes call it, simply, growing up. Harrington's moniker was more accurate. The loss of innocence. So the question for Morikawa, who turns 25 in February, is pretty simple, and a lot of golf history could depend on the answer.
It's the same question so many other stars in this field have gone to war with for years and years and years. It's a question he's probably never even thought about because, well, why would you ever think about it when you're 24 years old with two major championships?
The question, which McIlroy and Spieth and so many great ones that Morikawa is now among have grappled with and will grapple with into the future, is this: How do you continue to play this preposterous game (that tries to break you at every turn) with the wisdom and maturity of an adult but the free-swinging, iron-flushing innocence of a kid?