The inside story of Collin Morikawa's journey to the peak of professional golf
No two golfing journeys are identical. But if there is a common theme, it’s turbulence. Golf drags you on a rollercoaster ride—you fall in love with the game and then fall out of it. You make a breakthrough and then hit a wall. The exhilarating successes are sandwiched by humbling failures.
This is true even for the best players in the world. Of course, their ebbs and flows are on a different scale, and their general trajectory is upward. Still, even the superstars have had their struggles. Brooks Koepka wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship offer from his beloved Florida Gators. Phil Mickelson couldn’t get over the major-championship hump until he was 33. Jordan Spieth stormed onto the scene a conquering hero and then dropped out of the top 75 in the World Golf Ranking.
That’s what makes Collin Morikawa’s rise so remarkable—the linearity of it all. It’s uninterrupted. There is, simply put, a whole lot of good and shockingly little bad: a comfortable upbringing in Southern California, an outstanding junior golf career that gave him his choice of colleges, a world No. 1 amateur ranking, a degree from one of the best undergraduate business schools in the world, a tour card less than two months after turning pro, an enriching relationship with a beautiful woman, three PGA Tour victories, millions of dollars, a major championship—all before his 24th birthday.
Morikawa will tell you he is anything but satisfied. That despite how it might appear, he does not have everything figured out. There is, however, ample evidence to the contrary.
‘I’VE BEEN VERY LUCKY’
Debbie and Blaine Morikawa co-own a commercial-laundry business near downtown Los Angeles that delivers linens, tablecloths and the like to restaurants throughout L.A. It has been in the family for quite a while. Nothing crazy lucrative, but more than enough to provide Collin and his younger brother, Garrett, who is 17 and prefers soccer over golf, a worry-free childhood in La Cañada Flintridge, a small upscale enclave just north of Pasadena.
“I’ve been very lucky,” says Collin, who now lives in Las Vegas—on his own but not too far away from home. He misses L.A., of course, but “you know, taxes.” He thinks about money these days, in the good way—because he has a lot of it. He didn’t when he was younger.
“We never had to think about money growing up,” he says, “never had to think about what we were having for dinner. I wasn’t a kid that wanted many things; I never asked for a lot. But if I did need something or I did want something, I was very lucky to have parents who were able to afford stuff like that.”
His family traveled frequently, often to Hawaii, where his fraternal grandparents still live and where he attributes his love affair with the ocean. They would go skiing. They had a membership to Chevy Chase Country Club, a private nine-hole layout in nearby Glendale. But it was at a public course where young Collin’s golf talent began to shine: Scholl Canyon, a 3,039-yard, par-60 track where an instructor named Rick Sessinghaus worked.
When Morikawa was 5, his parents convinced the organizers of a junior golf camp at Scholl to let their son participate. He wasn’t technically old enough, but the bones of his remarkably repeatable golf swing were already in place.
“Rick was the guy at the end of the range who taught the better players,” Morikawa says. “He was the end goal, the guy you wanted as a coach. So after I went through the camp, slowly getting more interested in the game, my parents could see I was getting better. So they approached Rick to see if he would coach me, and by the time I was 8, we had started this relationship.”
That relationship continues to this day. Sessinghaus isn’t your typical swing guru with a stable of professional players. Morikawa is his only student on the PGA Tour, so Sessinghaus has no need to hide his rooting interest. In other words, he cheers. Loudly. And during the fan-less reality of pandemic golf in 2020, he was often the only one. “We fist-bump for birdies,” Sessinghaus says with a smile. We refers to anyone near him, including this writer, who can confirm the policy. “For eagles, I might knock your hand off,” he says.
Of course, Sessinghaus knows the golf swing—particularly Collin’s, which he has molded for 15-plus years. But Sessinghaus also owns a doctorate in applied sports psychology and penned a book called Golf: The Ultimate Mind Game. Not surprisingly, he preaches a holistic method for improvement—he and Morikawa talk often about a “growth mind-set”—and speaks about his relationship with his star pupil as a father gushes about his son.
Their work has never been the typical instructor-stands-behind-the-player-on-the-practice-tee situation. Instead of having a young Morikawa mindlessly hit balls on the driving range, Sessinghaus preferred to simulate situations on the golf course.
“We’d drop balls around the course, and I’d have him play three types of shots,” Sessinghaus says. “On the first, I’d let him do his thing. Then we’d talk about why he chose that shot, what he was trying to do, and he’d make his own adjustments for No. 2. Then I’d give him some technical advice on how to play the correct shot for the situation, and he’d try that shot for the third.”
Sessinghaus’ goal has never changed: He wants Collin to be a player, not a hitter, to think about variables and understand his mistakes. Was that a bad swing or a bad decision? Both coach and student credit this philosophy with helping make Morikawa the measured player he is today. You won’t catch Morikawa posting launch-monitor readings to Instagram, and he doesn’t so much rely on adjusted yardages as he does on feel, artistry and athleticism. What Sessinghaus and Morikawa work on has remained consistent since Morikawa was a child: low-tech drills such as hitting flat-footed punch shots and simple methods like varying how high the hands finish to determine shot shape.
Morikawa progressed rapidly. He quit playing other sports around age 10. Baseball was the hardest goodbye. “It’s not like I didn’t want to play other sports,” he says. “I just felt like if I wanted to do this, this is what I had to do.” Eye-popping self-knowledge for a pre-teen. “It was my decision, as a little kid,” he says. “It’s crazy to think about it, but it’s what I loved.”
During the next few years, Sessinghaus grew increasingly certain he had something special.
“I remember this conversation with my wife when I came home after a day working with Collin,” he says. “I told her, ‘He has it. He has that special thing. He’s going to be a professional.’ He was 12 years old at the time.”
A FATEFUL DECISION IN COLLEGE
When it came time to choose a college, Morikawa had options. An accomplished junior with a sparkling report card, he was every college coach’s dream. “I was able to really look at the entire country and say, OK, this is where I want to go,” he says. “My mom went to USC, so I grew up a Trojan fan. The Pac-12 was always in my blood. I always viewed the Pac-12 as the best.”
In the end, he narrowed his options to four California schools: Stanford, UCLA, USC and Cal-Berkeley. He chose Berkeley and wasted little time establishing himself as the alpha of the program, finishing as Cal’s top player in seven of his 14 events as a freshman in 2015-’16. But he didn’t win a tournament that season, and not until that summer did he truly emerge as one of the best players in the country.
In June 2016 he won the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur with a final-round 62. The next week he teed it up in the Capital Classic, a tournament on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour, which he qualified for by winning the Trans-Mississippi Amateur the year before. It was his first time playing in a professional tournament, so he felt perfectly content to make the cut on the number. Then he closed with two sizzling 63s and drained a 27-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole to get into a three-way playoff.
Ollie Schniederjans ended up winning, but from the outside it seemed Morikawa had a difficult choice to make: Stay in school or turn pro. Clearly, his game was ready. But he knew he wasn’t prepared at 19 for the solitary life of a professional golfer.
“I don’t think I would have turned pro, even if I won,” he says. “I definitely would have brought it up to my parents, and I would have thought about it. Yes, maybe my golf game was ready, but I wasn’t ready to live that life by myself. People have said I’ve been very mature and, yes, I probably could have lived on my own. But I didn’t go to a school like Cal to play one year, have some good results and leave. Just wasn’t my mind-set.”
Eric Mina was an assistant during Morikawa’s last three years at Cal and remembers meeting him at the first team practice of Morikawa’s sophomore year at Blackhawk Country Club. Mina had been an All-American at Cal and did the mini-tour grind for a few years before returning to the program. He knew what a professional golfer looked like—an awful lot like a teenage Collin Morikawa.
“What caught my eye was his ability to maneuver the golf ball, to really control it,” Mina says. “Whether it was a half shot or a full shot, he knew his yardages. He really knew them. You don’t see that with a lot of pro golfers, so for a 19-year-old kid to have that—extremely impressive.”
Now, there’s staying in school and then there’s staying in school. It’s not exactly a secret that the best college athletes often pick—how should we say this?—manageable majors and classes. If they don’t leave early, as Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth did, then the goal is to stay academically eligible without racking up a particularly stressful workload.
Morikawa missed the memo. During the fall of his sophomore year, just as his golf had begun to take off, he applied to the Haas Business School, the No. 3 undergraduate business program in America, according to U.S. News & World Report. He received his acceptance letter while at a golf tournament in Hawaii, naturally.
“I think the biggest thing that helped us out as far as keeping him in school,” Mina says, “was him getting into Haas. If he didn’t get in, it might have been appealing for him to leave.”
But what use does a professional golfer have for a business degree?
“A bunch of people are coming out of Haas and running their own startups or going into a large business or company,” Morikawa says. “They’re getting great jobs. Me, I’m getting a great job and running my own brand, running who I am as a golfer. I might not necessarily be doing everything, but I understand everything that’s going on.
“I don’t know that everyone out there on the PGA Tour really has a full understanding of everything that’s going on behind them. I’m very aware of that, of what’s going on in the background. Other people, they couldn’t care less. They just want someone to do it for them. But I want to be involved; I want to learn about it.”
Also during his sophomore year Morikawa met Katherine Zhu, a player on the Pepperdine women’s golf team. Morikawa and Zhu shared a mutual friend on the Cal women’s team, and their story of coming together is distinctly modern: The friend showed Morikawa pictures on Zhu’s Instagram page. Morikawa liked what he saw, and the two began texting, eventually meeting over spring break. They have been together since.
“She’s helped me so much,” Morikawa says, quick to point out that he didn’t begin winning tournaments in bunches until she came into his life. “Especially out on tour, it’s a very lonely life. Everyone will tell you, at parts of their career, they’ve been lonely. Having her travel with me, we’ve been able to explore new cities, have good dinners. I’ve just been able to relax, not to stress about the next day so much. I think that’s how some of the best players out there that have families, kids traveling with them are able to flip the switch. On the golf course, it’s golf; it’s business. Off the course, they don’t tire themselves out. Without her, I’d be so focused on golf 24-7, getting antsy about the next round, stuff like that. You can never do that.”
He got into business school, he got the girl, then he started winning. During his last three years at Cal, he won five times and lost in a playoff twice. His junior year, he set a new NCAA scoring record with an average of 68.68 and finished the year as the No. 1 player in the nation. As a senior, he won the Pac-12 individual title and had 11 top 10s in 12 starts.
But perhaps his most impressive feat in college, the true harbinger of his rapid success as a professional, did not come in a tournament at all. It came on a practice range. While he was at Cal, he took a dispersion test on a launch monitor. “They said my shot dispersion with a 6-iron was about the same as the average tour pro’s with a pitching wedge,” he told Golf Digest in 2019. “I guess that’s a humble brag.”
A DIRECT PATH TO THE TOUR
In the summer of 2019, J.J. Jakovac was out of a job. Ryan Moore, his boss of eight years, had decided to go in adifferent direction, which is the way players on the PGA Tour tell their caddies that it’s over. Jakovac, who won the NCAA D-II individual title in college twice (2002 and 2004), knew that a new highly touted crop of college players was about to turn pro—Morikawa, Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolff and Justin Suh—so he figured he would do what anyone looking for a new job does: email the résumé.
“I wrote to a couple agencies,” Jakovac says, “said I’m free, would love to help. I was most interested in Collin’s situation, so I emailed his agent directly. I figured it was really late in the game because it was only a week before he turned pro. The next day, Collin called me.”
The interview lasted about 45 minutes and was more or less what you would expect: What’s your background in golf? Your philosophy on strategy? How do you think you can help me succeed? But Jakovac remembers one question he didn’t expect from a 23-year-old. “He asked me, ‘Are you organized?’ Such a funny question—like, I can’t really show you; all I can say is yes, I’m organized.”
Morikawa’s reasoning for asking? “My pet peeve is people who are late.” Jakovac’s answer satisfied his interviewer, 15 years his junior, and the job was his. He flew to Columbus, Ohio, for his first day of the new gig, which was also Morikawa’s first tournament as a pro: a 36-hole sectional qualifier for the U.S. Open. Morikawa made it through, shooting 66 in the second round to make it on the number. Three days later he teed it up in the RBC Canadian Open on a sponsor’s invite, finished T-14 and made $125,400. Not bad for a first paycheck out of school.
“I had dinner with Justin Thomas that week in Canada,” Morikawa says. “He gave me great advice, not about how to hit the golf ball, but about getting to the PGA Tour. He said, ‘If you’re good enough, you’ll get there eventually.’ He told me not to change who I am as a player. Everyone’s path is different, but you’ll get there at some point.”
Thomas was speaking from experience—he, too, was a decorated college player, but like most everyone else, he played a full season on the Korn Ferry Tour before getting his card.
Morikawa’s path, it turned out, would be more direct. Less than a month after the RBC, he finished second in the 3M Open to Wolff, who drained an eagle putt on the 72nd hole for a one-shot victory. Hovland, the third member of the Class of 2019 triumvirate, finished 13th. All three had arrived, and the comparisons began.
“I don’t get tired of [the comparisons] because at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter. I don’t look at leader boards and think, Oh, my God, I beat Viktor, Matt beat me. It’ll never stop, and I understand that, because the media is looking for a story, and I’ll admit, it’s a pretty good story. But beating those guys, it gives me no satisfaction.”
Morikawa also points out that while they all turned pro in the same month, they’re all different ages—Wolff did two years at Oklahoma State, and Hovland did three, which makes Morikawa the elder statesman of the group—by age and by demeanor.
“The other young guys—it’s not just their attitude toward golf, but it’s life. You can tell they’re kids,” Jakovac says. “They really are, and you can tell. And you can’t tell with Collin.
“On Mondays and Tuesdays, we’ll play practice rounds, and he’s hamming it up with his buddies. Then you’ll kind of see that on Wednesday, he goes into a different mode. It’s hard to explain. He’ll purposely go out by himself and start thinking about his game plan for the week, stuff other kids maybe don’t do. He prepares very, very maturely for tournaments. It’s not just always going out and playing matches with your buddies, joking around. He gets kind of serious when he needs to. It’s nice to see.”
In his next start after placing second to Wolff, Morikawa finished T-4 at the John Deere Classic to secure a tour card for the next season. In his next start after that, he won the Barracuda Championship in just his sixth tournament as a professional.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced the PGA Tour to temporarily suspend its season back in March, Morikawa had made the cut in each of his first 20 professional tournaments. However, he knew there was progress to be made, another gear to be reached—and he knew what would take him there: improving his short game and especially his putting. In his first full season on tour, Morikawa ranked 19th in strokes gained/off the tee and second in strokes gained/approach, but he finished 93rd in strokes gained/around the green and 128th in strokes gained/putting.
He spent the hiatus working on his weaknesses at his adopted home course, The Summit Club in Las Vegas. That, and fostering dogs—he and Zhu took advantage of the unexpected time at home to care for a number of dogs from nearby shelters. They have plans to permanently adopt a goldendoodle in early 2021. “Watch out, world,” Collin says.
In his first tournament after the re-start, at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial, Morikawa’s putting came under the microscope for the worst reason possible. After playing his way into a playoff against Daniel Berger, Morikawa had a three-footer on the first extra hole to match Berger’s par. He yanked the putter back inside and pushed it dead right—a crushing lip-out and a brutal way to lose.
“Putting, for me, it just never came naturally,” he says. “Some guys, it does. Not me. But the ball-striking does. I feel like if I take a week or two off, I can come back and hit a bunch of perfect high cuts. But putting is more of a struggle.”
The nightmare nearly repeated itself a month later, one week after his streak of 22 made cuts ended at the Travelers Championship, falling just three short of Tiger Woods’ record of 25 to begin a career. At the Workday Charity Open at Muirfield Village, he needed to make another three-footer to get into a playoff with his old dinner partner, Justin Thomas. This one was a pull—but it caught the lip and fell. He then absorbed a 50-foot bomb from Thomas on the first playoff hole and punched back with a 24-footer of his own to continue the duel. A steady par on the next hole was enough for his second win.
Four weeks later, he elbowed his way into a seven-way tie for the lead late on Sunday afternoon at the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, just a half-hour cruise across the bay from his college stomping grounds. Playing in just his second major championship, he says he reached a mental headspace he had never been in before on a golf course.
“It was a focus where people could have been yelling in my face, and I wouldn’t have remembered. My first win, at the Barracuda, I can tell you where everyone was standing the last two holes—where my parents were, where Kat was standing. At the PGA, I have no recollection of where anyone was because I was so focused. People talk about Tiger’s tunnel vision—that’s where I was. Just so locked in on hitting the next shot, what the next shot was going to look like. I’ve never had that type of focus.”
He fatted a 9-iron approach at 14 then holed the chip for birdie to take the lead. Two holes later he stepped to the drivable 16th tee. The number was ideal for a driver—273 to the front edge and 278 to the hole—and the swing was, too.
“Thank God for my lack of distance,” Morikawa jokes. “Thankfully, I don’t hit it 330, so it was just a perfect driver for me.”
The ball landed just short of the green and rolled to seven feet. Suddenly, the tournament was in his hands. He might not punish the ball like some of his peers—Morikawa ranked 97th in driving distance last season—but this one went far enough.
“It’s not like I’m 5-9 in the NBA,” he says. “I don’t show up to any course thinking I can’t win. I’ve won tournaments hitting it the length I hit it now.”
Still, he needed to convert. Finally a crucial putt went in dead center, the eagle followed by a modest, if uninspiring, fist pump. Satisfied, but not surprised, Morikawa led the field in strokes gained/putting that week, which he credits to a tip his caddie gave him the week before in Memphis.
“I thought he had too much weight on his right foot, and he was kind of coming up on the ball and getting a bit jabby,” Jakovac says. “So I told him to put more weight on his left side, and it allowed the putter to flow through the hitting zone much better.”
Gutsy pars on 17 and 18 clinched a two-shot victory, and Morikawa became the fourth player since World War II to win the PGA Championship before turning 24. The other three? Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Golf had its new superstar—no shock at all to his competitors.
“There’s always a bunch of guys that rock up on the scene, and he didn’t necessarily get the most publicity out of the group he was in,” says Paul Casey, who finished tied for second at the PGA. “But, you know, I consider myself a veteran. I know talent when I see it. You know when somebody is good, and Collin is good. We could just tell. Those of us who knew, knew that was the cat. He’s the one.”
LIFE AS A MAJOR CHAMPION
Winning majors should be life-changing, but Morikawa certainly doesn’t feel much different. He’s a bit busier. That’s about it. This was but the next step in his inexorable ascent of the golfing universe. He took a few days to enjoy the victory then turned his attention to the upcoming FedEx Cup playoffs, which began at TPC Boston. There he experienced one of those truly surreal pinch-yourself moments, when a masked Tiger Woods sought out Morikawa on the practice ground and said, “Welcome to the major club.”
Tiger aside, Morikawa says he still doesn’t get recognized much at all. His barber in Las Vegas, for example, has no idea who he is. “And what makes that extra funny is they have a picture plastered on the wall of when Bryce Harper came in for a cut. But, I mean, come on, I’m a 5-foot-9 Asian dude—I put on a hat and a mask, and you are not going to recognize me.”
As for what’s next, the plans are vague. Morikawa is clearly driven by goals—never expectations, he says, always goals—but they are immediate goals. Get better today. Win this tournament. The long-range planning doesn’t come as naturally. Starting a foundation is on the to-do list, but he isn’t quite sure what the cause will be. Animals, maybe. The business-school side of him sees the appeal of globalizing his brand, an effort he knows will be aided by having a Japanese last name. (His mom’s side is Chinese.)
“At the end of the day I’m American. I bleed U.S.A. This is where my grandparents grew up; this is where my parents grew up; this is where I grew up,” he says. “It’s just realizing my background and seeing where I come from, and I think that’s pretty cool.”
He wants to try the best restaurants around the world because, in his own words, “Food rules my life,” and “I think it would be awesome to meet big-time chefs around the country because I want to see what they do. It’s so cool; it’s so awesome to me.”
As far as golf goes, there is still so much he hasn’t experienced: the first-tee nerves of a Ryder Cup, the quirks of an Open Championship. He wants to get stronger, to milk a few precious more yards out of that 5-foot-9 frame, but there is no rush. Because Collin Morikawa knows the player he is—and, just as crucially, the player he isn’t.
“I’ve gotten here doing what I’ve been doing,” he says. “It’s worked for me. Why change anything?”