Rarely has a debutant, even one already boasting a major, navigated their Open Championship debut with such astounding ease and expertise as Collin Morikawa. The 24-year-old American, who wields his short irons with the deft conviction of an archer’s bow, mounted one of the most precise assaults this stretch of Sandwich coastline has witnessed and burnished hopes of becoming just the fifth man to lift the Claret Jug at their maiden attempt since the Second World War.
If that seems a heavy tome of history, it paled in the face of Morikawa’s unwavering accuracy as he seized on the gentle conditions at Royal St George’s and seemed destined to break the course record, only for a late gust to finally restrain his charge. Seven under par through his opening 14 holes, a single bogey and two spurned birdie putts saw him card a 64 to match Louis Oosthuizen’s blistering first round on Thursday and take temporary hostage of the leaderboard.
Irrefutably the finest iron player on the PGA Tour, and by such statistical measure that he almost laps the field, the world No 4 has a style that is almost tailor-made for links golf. Yet, Morikawa’s first experience at the Scottish Open last week was chastening, struggling to a 71st-place finish that featured a wealth of uncharacteristic mistakes and saw many cast aside his status as a contender. But golf’s greatest players have a rare ability to assimilate their mistakes, accrue course knowledge and make the necessary adjustments at a speed that so often separates them from the field. And with three new short irons in his bag, Morikawa had recalibrated to the finest of degrees, seizing on the momentum of a quietly impressive 67 yesterday to forge a relentless path that will reverberate long into the weekend.
“I wouldn’t be here through these two rounds if I hadn’t played last week at the Scottish,” he said. “I’ve played in firm conditions. I can think of places I’ve played in tighter, drier conditions, but just having rescue fairways and the ball sitting a little different was huge to see last week. I changed my irons, my nine-through-seven-iron, strictly because I couldn’t find the centre of the face. I was hitting these iron shots last week that I just normally don’t and my swing felt good, but it was a huge learning opportunity. Last week I wanted to win, but I came out of it learning a lot more, and thankfully it helped for this week.”
Morikawa only turned professional a month before the last Open in Portrush, but he has always shown a remarkable temperament and maturity. Quickly signed to the same agency as Tiger Woods, he made his first 22 cuts in succession and took just 14 months to clinch a first major on his debut at the PGA Championship, when a stunning final round of 64 saw him surge away from the field in his home state of California. There were no fans at Harding Park then, but the weight of expectation or spotlight has never seemed to breach his conscience.
What’s more, as his closest competitors chase distance with aggression, Morikawa has reaped the benefits of a more well-rounded perspective. Sacrificing power for accuracy off the tee, he barely missed a fairway on the front nine and repeatedly left himself with the perfect angle to attack the flags. As his irons and wedges fired with laser-like focus, he set the tone immediately with an exquisite high fade into the first green and followed it with an ever finer effort at the fifth, taming one of Royal St George’s infamous fairway gradients in sublime fashion. His best, though, was saved for the ninth, when a gentle draw ignored the breeze entirely and set up the most nonchalant of tap-in birdies.
“I always try and fit my game into ‘how do I play my best golf?’, and I feel like I can win if I stick to what I’ve been doing, stick to my approach shots, stick to those eight-irons, nine-irons, seven-irons, because that’s my bread and butter,” he said. “That’s what I love to do. When I’m in the middle of the fairway, I feel like I can hit it just as close as some guys hit their wedges, especially when I’m on like the first two days.”
A distinctly slow-paced backswing has always allowed Morikawa to release through the ball with perfect rhythm and, on those rare occasions when his form has dipped, it’s the pendulum of his putter that has faltered. It showed no sign of weakness at the 11th hole, though, as he rolled in a sloping birdie putt with utter certainty. Even when he made slight errors, such as finding the bunker off the tee at the par-five 14th, the supreme confidence in his wedges allowed him to lay up and float another arrow from 115 yards to the foot of the flag.
That seventh birdie had left the American just one short of the course record, but a tweak in the Achilles heel of his putting denied him that piece of history, with a four-footer sliding past the hole at the 15th before a birdie putt lipped out at the final hole. It was a stroke of misfortune that did nothing to stem the standing ovation Morikawa received, though, nor to temper his typically measured delight afterwards. But for the rest of the field, it might just have offered some much-needed mercy.