PGA Championship 2021: Collin Morikawa relives the week he became famous
Collin Morikawa remembers virtually every detail about the week that changed his life. It wasn’t all that long ago he won the first men’s major championship of the post-COVID world, and he’s still nine months away from his 25th birthday, so this recollection is not quite a miracle of memory science.
There is, however, one tidbit that he cannot answer for.
“On that 16th hole,” Morikawa says of the driveable par-4 16th at TPC Harding Park, where his eagle proved the decisive blow in last year’s PGA Championship, “I don’t remember a single person standing out there. Normally, at tournaments, I know where my coach, agent and girlfriend are. I’ve never been that focused in my life. Ever. I’m still trying to tap into that mental state, that focus that I had those 18 holes. You could’ve thrown anything at me and I would not have known.”
It wasn’t the first (or second) time Morikawa had won on the PGA Tour. But like his mental state that day, this victory was different. While every week can feel like life-or-death inside the golf bubble, the general population only has eyes for a handful of golf tournaments. Win one of those, and all of a sudden you’re no longer just a big deal in the golf world—you’re famous.
And while he’s still not ready to concede it, Collin Morikawa became famous that day in San Francisco. Just 14 months after he graduated from Cal-Berkeley with a BS from the Haas Business School, Morikawa joined Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy as the only players to win PGA Championships before turning 24. In just his second start in a major championship, he became a major champion.
LISTEN: Collin Morikawa in his own words
Ahead of his title defense this week at Kiawah’s Ocean Course, we sat down with the World No. 6, recorded a Local Knowledge podcast episode and had him explain in his own words the human side of his remarkable rise to superstardom—what’s it like to go from a college student to the center of a multi-person business; when was the moment he realized he could hang with the players he grew up idolizing; how he slept the night before Sunday at a major; and how has life changed since that 16th hole at TPC Harding Park, where he can’t remember seeing a single person. —Daniel Rapaport
People have been saying my name wrong for as long as I can remember. It’s pronounced Mo-REE, not Mo-RUH. It’s, Mo-REE-kah-wuh. Before the final round of the PGA, the first-tee announcer butchered my last name so badly. It wasn’t even close to Morikawa. I really wish I remember right now, because it was so bad that I had to stop and smile. It’s not the first time it’s happened.
You see it every year—guys who are scouted to be the next big thing and they never do. Of course, there’s some fear in your head that it might be you. But I spent four years in college for a reason—to get fully prepped, to fully get ready out here. I sat down with Justin Thomas for dinner at the RBC Canadian Open in 2019, the first event I played after turning pro. He told me, Look, if you’ve gotten here to where you’re getting all these sponsor’s invites, you know your golf game is going to be good enough. I don’t know what your timeline is, but you’ve got what it takes to take on the PGA Tour. You’re not here by accident. And that really stuck with me.
My first tee shot as a pro couldn’t have felt more normal—surprisingly so. I can’t remember where it went, but I wasn’t, like, nervous. It wasn’t, My dreams just came true. I was just playing. But I didn’t really believe I could win until my third event, at the Travelers. I heard Brooks Koepka answer a question about how he slowly progressed from thinking about making cuts, to thinking about top-20s, to top-10s, to winning. I thought to myself, Why can’t I just skip those steps and think about winning right away?
People made it seem like we played TPC Harding Park every single day in college, or that we practiced there, which wasn’t the case. I definitely felt comfortable coming into that week—I was playing well, and I lived in the San Francisco area for four years. And I’d played the course probably eight times. But it actually wasn’t my favorite course in the city, if I’m being honest. Now, obviously, that’s changed.
My agent and my coach drove from San Franscisco to L.A. on Friday evening. Guess they didn’t have much faith in me! Then I shot 65 on Saturday and they told me they were going to drive back first thing Sunday morning. I was like, Why? I’m two shots out of the lead, there are eight guys within three and DJ is leading. But they said they wanted to do it, and if they want to wake up at some crazy hour to drive, why not?
Sean M. Haffey
I slept like a baby on Saturday night. I’m 24, I sleep really well just in general. There’s only been one thing in my golf career that’s caused me to lose sleep, and that’s switching to my saw putting grip. That’s the only time where I woke up thinking about it, went to bed thinking about it. But I sleep really well.
That week was cool because my girlfriend was in town, but she wasn’t at the course for the first three days. So on Saturday, while I was playing, she was just out hanging with her good friend who lives there. We all had dinner that night at a ramen restaurant and didn’t talk about golf. They don’t care what I’m shooting, and that’s the best thing I can ask for.
It’s a terrible habit, but like everyone else, first thing I do in the morning is scroll through my phone. That Sunday was no different. Then I just take my time to get into the day. Relax, stretch, no stress. It’s kind of like waking up on a weekend morning for a guy who just grinded Monday-Friday. Then I begin to get myself focused. It’s not quite pumping yourself up, it’s focused. I don’t meditate—maybe I should start—but I think I do a good job of getting myself in a meditative state before rounds.
After the trophy ceremony—and we don’t need to talk about me dropping the lid anymore!—we took so many pictures. With the superintendents, the volunteers, the people from the PGA of America, my girlfriend, my coach, my caddie. Then it was media until it got dark. We headed up to the clubhouse for a dinner they’d set up for us. I drank some wine out of plastic cups, and some of the locker room attendants were trying to get me to take shots or shotgun beers with them. I was tempted to, but you’re also thinking … I just won a major championship, do people want to see me doing that? I’m sure there’s a big crowd that would say yes. But there’s also a crowd that would think huh, that’s who he is.
I don’t want this ego to spring up just because I won a tournament. I don’t feel entitled to anything because I won. I try to respect every one around me. But yes, now I have to step a line. I love going out to eat—it’s a huge passion of mine, going out and trying these restaurants in whatever city we’re in. Every week we’ve been at a tournament since the PGA, I’ve been recognized. And I still think I won’t be recognized, but I am. At the Players, my agent and I were at this barbecue spot. We’re eating dinner and I’m thinking great, we’re in this corner, no one’s paying attention. And then as soon as I stand up, We’re such huge fans! I’m like oh, man, people really are watching and listening to what I’m doing.
I don’t order packages under my own name anymore. I like to throw out some really random names. To be honest, I might use your name next time, because it’s a great name. I come up with some really random ones when I’m making a reservation for dinner. It gets really creative.
I don’t think that week really changed what other pros thought of me, though it was so cool to have Tiger and Rory tell me, “Welcome to the club.” I’d already won twice in less than a year, which is a pace I’d love to keep up for the rest of my career. I think after guys saw me win they were like, OK, this kid can play golf. Then you become competition to them. You’re no longer the young guy trying to find his footing. JT wasn’t playing great the first year after I turned pro, and I was playing really well. He had a tough little stretch. And we were talking with my agent, and he was like “maybe I shouldn’t have given him that advice at dinner!” Just a funny story to look back on, but you really do have to watch what advice you give out here. We’re all trying to beat every single person out here.
I don’t mind the added attention that’s come since TPC Harding Park. It’s just part of this life I’m going to be living. Sometimes when you see a little kid and you answer a question for two minutes, that could change their entire life, change the way they look at things. And that’s the coolest thing. At 24, that I can hope to have that impact on people. I love where I’m at in life.