Collin Morikawa was unsuccessful in picking up a victory at the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba. He was barely in contention, but when the dust settled on one of the last PGA Tour events of the year, Morikawa still found himself at the center of the story.
Earlier in the week, Golf Channel commentator Trevor Immelman had posited that perhaps the reason Morikawa has been struggling in 2022 -- a year during which he has failed to secure a win -- was because of how difficult it is to live up to the high bar he set for himself early in his career when he won five of his first 50 PGA Tour events and two of his first eight major championships.
Morikawa's reaction to the very innocuous comment from Immelman was strange, and made me think he had completely misunderstood what Immelman had said.
"Wow, that's hard to hear from him," Morikawa told Golf Channel. "I couldn't care less what he says there because I don't think that's my bar. I think I've got so much more to improve. I've been near last on putting. I don't think I've even finished close to being average on putting. If I can just get my putting to be average, I think there's so much more to improve. I don't know where that came from, but that kind of stings there. I don't like to hear that.
"I don't know if that was a compliment, I'll be honest. If he did, maybe it came off wrong from what I heard. For me, I've never seen a ceiling. I just want to keep improving. Obviously, we took a couple steps back this year. It's just trying to get better every day and trying to improve on little things. I expect myself to play well. I set really high goals for myself. It just sucks when they don't come through."
Immelman later confirmed that the entire thing was in fact a misunderstanding, but between Morikawa's reaction, his hiring of a putting coach and his early-week monologue about the plight of getting old (Morikawa turns 26 next February), it made me wonder what else was going on with the two-time major champion.
"It was a lot more stressful this year," Morikawa said of his 2022. "I've just been kind of trying to figure out what was wrong when it was simply just kind of a body thing and just the way my body was moving. Unfortunately, it took seven, eight months throughout the year to at least find that, but that's on me. Everything is on me just to know what's going on. I've got a great team around me, but that's the best thing is that, you know, I still have to be aware of what I'm doing.
"I just wasn't kind of being able to make sure everything was where I wanted it to be. It's a grind, but that's what's great. Even though we are kind of heading towards this offseason, this fall area, I'm putting a lot of pieces together and putting a lot of work in to make sure this kind of next 2023 is going to be [the] best ever."
To be clear, Morikawa was talking about the way his body functioned in 2022.
"I think it's just getting old," said the 25-year-old. "Yeah, no, it's just getting old. I mean, man, I drank way more in college than I ever do now, but apparently when you get older, your body just moves differently. I still feel great, like everything feels great, everything moves great, but it's just not as clean as it was. And the maintenance I have to do now is just a little bit more. It doesn't mean I need to do anything crazy, I'm not changing anything really, it's just getting my body to where I need it to be.
"Last year, I didn't really have to focus on it, but when I look back and you think about how much travel I've done over the past three and a half years, it's a lot. It doesn't stop. I love it, but travel takes a toll on your body and it takes a toll on you and you've got to be able to kind of work your way through that and that's what the best athletes are doing."
It's clear that there is frustration from Morikawa that he has been unable to back up his spectacular 2020 and 2021 campaigns with something similar in 2022, and he sort of proved Immelman's point -- and to be fair, the same point many pundits and even players have made over the years -- that when you don't achieve what you once achieved at such a young age, it can wear on you mentally, physically and emotionally.
As for the golf itself, not a ton changed statistically, which should be encouraging to Morikawa. He dropped slightly in ball striking from 2021 (1.62 to 1.47 strokes gained per round) but not nearly enough to be worrisome. He was actually a better putter in 2022 than he was in 2021, although his short game suffered the biggest categorical drop compared to any other part of his game.
One interesting nuance is that while Morikawa's very best performances and very worst performances were nearly identical to what he did in 2021 (his expected wins did drop from 1.97 to 0.94 from 2021 to 2022), his median performances in 2022 were far worse than they were in 2021. This, theoretically, shouldn't matter as it relates to winning (you only win with your best performances anyway), but it might matter in regards to how he feels like he is playing.
The point here is that Morikawa is going to be fine. He's a high-variance player, which if you're intent on collecting a lot of trophies is what you want to be. It would serve him well mentally and emotionally to understand that just because a few tournaments went his way early in his career, that doesn't mean his baseline is somebody who wins three or four regular events and a major every year. Data Golf had him at 0.20 expected majors in 2020, and he won one; it had him at 0.45 expected majors in 2021, and he won another. This matters because, while he was good, he was not overwhelmingly great in 2020-2021 yet the expectations after winning two majors started to pile up. We wouldn't even be having this conversation if Morikawa was a three-win, no-major guy.
If you take the long view, wins and losses often happen randomly, which means they can sometimes happen in bunches. Just because you win two of your first eight majors doesn't mean you're the second coming of Tiger Woods. Just because you don't win any of your next 15 doesn't mean the Korn Ferry Tour is in your future.
Morikawa exceeded both expectations and statistical probabilities in terms of winning over the first few years of his career. He overachieved. That happens, but it doesn't mean a winless year has changed him as a player or a competitor even if it can often feel that way.
Are there things to work on? Sure. Can the iron play get a tad better? Yes. Does he need to clean up his short game a bit? Absolutely. But if Morikawa continues to play like he did in 2022, he's going to have more seasons (in terms of wins) like he experienced in 2021. That can seem counterintuitive, but as we've seen so many times throughout the history of golf, this game makes absolutely no sense. If you let it, the sport can befuddle even those who have seemingly every answer.