Players 2020: Collin Morikawa is the PGA Tour's most polished 23-year-old
PONTE VEDRA BEACH — If you ask the three most exciting young players on the PGA Tour—the trio of rising stars who have out-performed their significant hype, each securing a win before their 23rd birthdays—to compare themselves, personality by personality, you get three eerily similar answers. Keep in mind that what you're about to read are verbatim quotes, recited separately hours and days apart, and without the questioner, in any case, mentioning the word "mature."
Viktor Hovland: I'd say Collin's very mature. Matt is probably on the other side of the spectrum there. But Matt can still be mature when he needs to be; he just likes to fool around and have a good time, which we all do in our different ways. It's hard to put everyone in a certain box. Me, it depends what group I'm in. If I'm with an older crowd or a more mature crowd, I can probably be more mature, but if I'm hanging out with younger people that are more out there, I can get there myself.
Collin Morikawa: I'd say I'm fairly mature, compared to these two, at least. Viktor's mature, but you know me and Matt are on opposite ends of certain maturity levels on certain things, but that's just who I've always been. I'm pretty reserved, I still love to smile and have a good time, because that's how I stay relaxed. But for me, I'm just, I love knowing everything, knowing all the information … that's kinda who I am.
Matthew Wolff: I'm definitely the most immature. Yeah, I mean, I can be mature … when I need to be, but I just like to have a good time out there. Collin, I would say Collin's probably the most mature and then Viktor is, like, the in-between that thinks he's really smart but really isn't.
On that topic, I raise an eyebrow every time I hear a professional golfer described as immature, since it would be impossible for someone so young to succeed at this level without an incredible degree of maturity when compared to the universe of humans in their early 20s. What they meant by immaturity, in this case, was not irresponsible or self-defeating behavior, but rather run-of-the-mill goofing around of the kind that almost everyone engages in from time to time.
But to hear one person routinely described as the most mature, by these high standards … now that was interesting.
What did it mean? And who is Collin Morikawa?
• • •
A year ago, he was a student at the University of California-Berkeley. He could relay that fact to a group of gathered media on Wednesday because he woke up that morning and looked on Snapchat—"If you guys know what that is," he said to the older journalists gathered around him, eliciting groans—and saw a picture of himself from exactly a year ago practicing his short game at Cal. One year hence, he was preparing for his first Players Championship, and the image he presented was one of incredible polish.
In a TaylorMade hat and Adidas shirt, he sipped coffee with brown sugar and cream from a Starbucks cup and fielded each question with the thoughtfulness of someone who had graduated at the top of his class from media training boot camp. Like many players of his generation, his voice was faintly redolent of Tiger Woods—not to the same degree as Patrick Reed, who often sounds like he's doing a fairly good impression of the greatest golfer to ever live, but enough so that it made you think he had been influenced in his younger days.
Morikawa had the shadow of what could be a solid mustache above his lip, a bright flash of a smile and a good-looking face that is slightly pock-marked. He was genuinely insightful and witty, as when he noted that a "generation" in professional golf, by the current media definition, tends to encompass a span of about one year, and that we'd abandon him and his cohort for a younger model the first chance we got. He's also digitally hip, at one point referencing Nosferatu, the world-rankings guru he had recently discovered on Twitter.
Mostly, though, I couldn't help noticing how good he was as he fielded questions, how comprehensive his composure, how thorough his thought process. At one point, while expressing his gratitude for the experience of his caddie, J.J. Jakovac, he joked about how he had surprised him by asking if he was organized—something that, you won't be surprised to know, matters a great deal to Morikawa. Then he spoke of what appealed to him about Jakovac, who had been Ryan Moore's caddie for years.
"When I look back at the people he's caddied for, it's not like he's bouncing around," Morikawa said. Then, as if some internal censor began to blare, he caught himself mid-sentence. He realized that it might sound insensitive to caddies who do bounce around, that it was a judgment on their character, and he sought immediately correct himself. "But I know caddie's a tough job," he said, "and day by day it can go by in a second."
It all happened quickly, without any change in his facial expression, but in that moment it was clear how quickly his brain works, and how conscious he is, moment to moment, of his own image and how it's being perceived.
An agent would consider this a valuable trait, but the danger is that it could come off as inauthentic or calculated, as if the "real" Morikawa was hidden somewhere beneath the polish. This capacity for quick self-correction and clarification reveals itself often in his speech. When I asked about his upbringing, he told me about how his parents "tried" to take up the game of golf around the time he was born, and then seemed to think this might sound condescending.
"I say 'try,' They did take up the game," he said.
Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images
Max Homa, another Cal-Berkeley product, considers Morikawa a friend. When I asked him to describe Morikawa, Homa was effusive, while simultaneously highlighting the steadiness inherent to his character.
"He's a robot!" Homa said. "I don't know that there's one thing that you could even knock about the guy, He is nice, he's brilliant, he's thoughtful, he keeps to himself when he needs to. He's the guy you want to be around when he wants to be, he's pretty much a perfect golfer, he hits the ball as straight as you could hit it, as solid as you could hit it, he putts it well, he chips it well, he's who everyone would want their kid to grow up to be like."
The word "robot" stuck out to me, and I asked him whether that meant he is boring in his professionalism and constancy.
"No, no," Homa corrected me. "He's like the perfect robot. He's like if I built a robot. You know, a little bit normal … it's not like if a scientist built a robot, it would be like if a dude built a robot."
• • •
Homa's "perfect robot" description is an intriguing one, because Morikawa does seem to have the rare combination of consistency and enough personality to be well-liked among his peers. His game, too, follows suit: He's a machine on the golf course, so incredibly error-free that he hasn't missed a cut in any event in the last three years, and has only missed a cut in a professional event at all if you go back to the 2016 Safeway Open. (He currently is the PGA Tour leader in most consecutive cuts made.) He won the Barracuda Championship last July, and has climbed the world ranking ladder to his current position of 44th. He'll play in his first Masters later this year, corona permitting, and shouldn't have a problem playing in the World Golf Championships and majors of 2020.
Thursday at the Players Championship, the PGA Tour smartly paired the three young stars together, and watching them play was an education in contrasts. Wolff wears a look of perpetual surprise, as if he is constantly being informed that a wild animal might be on the verge of attacking from the woods, and his game bears a resemblance to his expression, full of herky-jerky movements and adrenaline-fueled rockets that soar past the efforts of his contemporaries. When a writer marveled that he could hit a sand wedge 130 yards, calling it "really big," he responded "I'm really big, and you can quote me on that."
Morikawa, meanwhile, has a steadiness that you would recognize even if you didn't know his made-cut streak, or his scores. It's in his bearing. At the Junior Players Championship seven years ago, he was already considering the way he looked when he walked, and the pace at which he moved on the course. While he can be spectacular, as in his driver that found the reachable green on the par-4 12th hole with a trademark soft cut that Hovland professed to admiring, you measure his success by the mistakes he doesn't make. (On that same 12th hole, Wolff was the only one to use 3-wood instead of driver, and would have reached if his shot had been on line.)
Morikawa has something Wolff doesn't, in that sense, but it's also true that Hovland has something he doesn't. That something is called presence. Americans are just being introduced to the Norwegian, but when you watch the three, it's easy to tell that Hovland, with his engulfing smile and his easy bearing, could be the most beloved of them as their careers progress. He has something unquantifiable and unteachable, and unlike Morikawa, he's comfortable enough in his own skin to simply exist without self-censoring.
Hovland is the kind of player who will say something like, "good to know I'm not totally full of crap!" when someone validates an answer he gives. He likes to rile up Wolff by throwing big words like "euphemism" into his sentences, which prompted Wolff to say on Thursday that his buddy "thinks he's really smart but really isn't."
At the Wednesday media scrum, when someone asked him to pretend he was answering a Facetime call while being filmed with an iPhone, he laughed at the weirdness, but then slouched in his chair as if answering in the comfort of his own home and gave a casual "wassup" while flashing that big smile. It's hard to imagine Morikawa ever letting himself be vulnerable enough for that kind of display.
And in the results of the day, too, you could see the difference between the three men. Wolff was a step behind them, finishing with a three-under 69. Hovland posted a 68, doing so with five birdies, an eagle, and three bogeys. And Morikawa, the most mature 23-year-old on Tour, matched that score with five birdies and just one bogey—another steady/great performance from the star whose inexorable will, inexorable consistency, and inexorable talent will drive him, just as inexorably, to the top of his sport.
EDITOR'S NOTE—This story was posted before the PGA Tour announced on Thursday night that it was canceling the rest of the Players Championship.
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