For most of the final round of the 2020 PGA Championship, the leaderboard in San Francisco looked like rush-hour traffic in a California city about 400 miles to the south. There were seemingly more golfers scrapping for that "1." next to their name than missed the cut earlier this week.
In the end, the best iron player in the world emerged by using, of all things, his driver. Collin Morikawa joined Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only 23-year-old winners of the PGA Championship in its history. And he did so by shooting a stunning 6-under 64 on Sunday at TPC Harding Park to finish 65-64 on the weekend, the lowest score over the final 36 holes by a winner in major championship history (129).
Morikawa (-13), who beat Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey by two strokes, stands out as a flusher of the golf ball among a vast sea of them. The first time you see it, well ... you know.
There are whispers in the industry that he is the best iron player on the PGA Tour since Tiger Woods made his debut. Morikawa's swing can (and did) go toe-to-toe with Adam Scott's on Saturday in Round 3 when Morikawa shot 65 to play his way into one of the final few pairings in Sunday's final round. That Saturday 65 included just two bogeys, and he played the last four holes in 3 under. The momentum carried into a Sunday that he'll remember for a long time.
"I'm on Cloud Nine right now," said Morikawa after the win. "It's hard to think about what this championship means. Obviously, it's a major, and this is what guys go for, especially at the end of their career, and we're just starting. So I think this is just a lot of confidence, a lot of momentum, and it just gives me a little taste of what's to come. I got a taste of this now."
After going out in 33 with no bogeys in Round 4 -- and making birdie at the 10th as well -- Morikawa started trading blows with Johnson, Casey, Tony Finau, Bryson DeChambeau, Matthew Wolff and a host of others at the top of the leaderboard.
The shared lead was head-spinning at times -- two golfers then three, then four, then five, then six ... then seven (!) sat at the top before it waned back down again. But after a chunky second shot into the par-4 14th with the tournament very much hanging in the balance, Morikawa eventually emerged from the pack (which included a Wolff). He chipped in from 54 feet away for an unlikely 3 that got him to 11 under.
The moment of the tournament -- the one that sealed the deal -- was yet to come. A par on No. 15 led to the 16th, where one of the best-kept secrets in golf was about to hit the shot of his young life.
Earlier in the day, Jordan Spieth said somebody was going to shoot a 30 on the back nine because of how gettable the pins were. I'm not sure if he meant the short par-4 16th pin from the tee box, but the prediction stuck.
Morikawa absolutely flushed driver on the 16th from 294 yards and carved it in to 7 feet. In a shortened season in which this is the only major championship that will be played, this will easily go down as the shot of the year. When it's all said and done, even if there's more wins and major championships to come for Morikawa, it may stand up as the best shot of his career.
"We got to 16, [my caddie] asked me what I wanted to do," he said. "I'm sure it was a split between hitting iron and going for it. 'Why not hit a great driver? Why not hit that little left-to-right shot with the wind helping off the left?' I just needed that one bounce to go forward, and it did. Those are shots that you've got to take opportunities, and that's what really separated me."
Morikawa made the eagle putt (because you have to make that eagle putt) and wrapped his first major victory in just his second attempt (and first PGA Championship appearance). He did so with pars at the last two holes that both nearly fell as birdies. Either would have meant a 63 in the final round and a 30 on the back nine for the win, just like Spieth predicted.
For the week, Morikawa actually didn't hit his irons as well as normal, but he burned the course down with his driver on Sunday, hitting 12 of 14 fairways and gaining strokes on all but one hole. The 16th was a microcosm of how perfectly he hit the ball off the tee. He's not mega-long like Johnson or DeChambeau -- this was presumed to be a bomber's event -- which is why he wasn't among the small handful of biggest favorites coming into this week, despite being ranked among the top 15 in the world.
The bigger issue for Morikawa over the course of his short professional career has been the putter. He's struggled with it at times and missed a short putt in a playoff at the Charles Schwab Challenge, the PGA Tour's first event back from a three-month pause amid the coronavirus pandemic. He went on to win a different event after that, and then this week, he finished first in the field in strokes gained putting.
Morikawa showed what happens when an elite ball-striker finds a hot putter in a major championship week.
It wasn't a coming-out party for the now-top five player in the world -- that happened earlier this summer when he bested Justin Thomas in a playoff at the Workday Charity Open -- but it was an introduction to the broader golf world of what Morikawa can be and what he's already proven.
Following an elite college career at Cal, Morikawa has spent the last year rocketing to the top of the world golf rankings. This time last year, he was playing an opposite-field event. Now, he's a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, and historically, a major champion.
"He's a hell of a player," said four-time major champion Brooks Koepka, who fell apart on Sunday with a 4-over 74. "He's really good. You see these guys coming out of college now, they are ready to win. I think of that group, him, Matt Wolff, Viktor Hovland, it's impressive what they do. They come out of college and they're ready to play out here. Hats off to him."
As Morikawa removed his and set it in his lap, jumping on FaceTime next to his girlfriend while trying to drink in a moment that's impossible to drink in, I couldn't help but think about the importance of this victory. Not just because it's a major or because it makes Morikawa the frontrunner for PGA Tour Player of the Year or because he's a lock for the Ryder Cup or because he's now a top-five player in the world. All of those things are true.
What's even more true is that, when you're as good as Morikawa, not winning your first major for years and years and years can beat you up and grate you down.
Morikawa instead flashed into the camera on his phone that magic smile of youthful innocence that belies the intelligence of his game.
Life will come for him at some point -- did you watch Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy wrestle with TPC Harding Park this week? -- and it won't feel as easy as it once did.
"I don't know, [it's difficult to hang around for 54, 63 holes in recent seasons at majors]," said the four-time major winner McIlroy on Sunday. "Maybe I'm just not as good as I used to be. I don't know. I really don't know. I feel like the golf that I've played in the majors has been sort of similar to the golf I've played outside of them, and I've won some big events and played well and had a good season last season."
That's why winning your first at age 23 is as important as it is historic. Because at that age, when you've done it once, you think you can win them all. And as anyone who follows this stupid sport knows, that's half the battle.
Morikawa won't win them all, of course, but with that swing and that smile and that sense of the moment, it's difficult for us to imagine -- just like I'm sure it's difficult for him to imagine -- not winning a lot of them for a very long time.