There were former major champions, seasoned veterans and long bombers dominating the leaderboard all week, but it was a kid from Cal who swooped in with a final-round 64 to win the 102nd PGA Championship at San Francisco’s Harding Park Golf Course.
Collin Morikawa, a 23-year-old barely a pro for a year, finished 13 under for the week, good enough for a two-stroke win over 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson and England’s Paul Casey. Five players, including 2015 PGA Champion Jason Day, finished three shots back at 10-under 270.
Morikawa broke out of the largest logjam of players tied for the lead on the final nine in over a century of major-championship golf. Nine players were tied for the lead at one point as they all played the back nine, equaling the nine players that were tied for the lead in the final round of the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, won by Ray Floyd.
Morikawa did it with lightning, then thunder, just like it happens in nature. First you see the flash, then you hear the boom. The flash came at the 472-yard par-4 14th, when Morikawa, 3 under on the day to that point, pitched in for birdie to break out of the nine-way tie and get to 11 under. Morikawa had uncorked a 305-yard drive, but in one of the only hiccups of his round, he fanned a 9-iron, leaving himself short and right of the green.
“The ball was a little above my feet, a little uphill stance, and when you don't hit it out here, in the thick air, cold, windy, ball is even going to go shorter. I had to step on a 9-iron on that hole and never got a hold of it,” Morikawa recalled. “But the chip shot, yeah I think that was a huge turning point. That separated me.”
Then came the thunder. Now in the lead and realizing that the tees were up on the already diminutive par-4 16th, he blasted a driver with missile-command power and precision. Over the trees it soared, gently curving around them, threading its way to the entrance of the green and then sitting like an obedient dog a mere 7 feet from the cup for an eagle and a three-shot cushion.
It was something Morikawa hadn't planned on doing.
“By Wednesday night, I had no plans on going for 16 at all. I told (PGA Tour player and ESPN analyst this week) Colt Knost - he saw me Wednesday afternoon practicing on there, and he asked me if I was ever going to go for it - I told him a quick no, it's too much into the wind. I didn't think the pin was going to be where it was,” explained Morikawa.
PGA Championship tournament setup maven Kerry Haigh intended to create drama late on Sunday, with perhaps a late eagle swinging the championship. Shortening 16 on Sunday from 336 yards to 294 yards gave everyone in the field the option, not just the longest hitters.
“My caddie [said] 278 to the front. It was going to land just short of that in this weather; it's going to bounce on up. He looked at me and asked me what I wanted to do and I told him, let's hit a good drive,” Morikawa stated.
That’s exactly what Morikawa did, hearkening back to the 14th hole on Sunday at the Workday Charity Open in July, sticking his 320-yard drive to 12 feet at Muirfield Village. He went on to beat Justin Thomas in a playoff, overcoming a three-shot deficit with three holes left in regulation.
“I counted back from 14 at Muirfield,” he admitted. “What's different from 14 at Muirfield and this shot, similar numbers, wind was a little left, kind of into me, but I knew I had to hit a good one.”
Morikawa, who graduated from the University of California in May of last year, won his third PGA Tournament and his first major championship in just his first 12 months as a PGA Tour pro. He also became the 10th major champion to shoot all four rounds in the 60s (69-69-65-64), with an incredible 129 for the final 36 holes. He got stronger each day, culminating with his clean card, four birdies and one eagle on Sunday. He finished the tournament leading the field in several critical stats, including fairways hit, proximity to the hole on approach shots and strokes gained putting.
So he drove it the straightest, approached the hole most accurately and putted the best. The only thing he didn’t do right was lift the trophy. When he accepted it at the presentation and went to lift it over his head, the top flew off, a fitting end to a crazy week. Still, it’s likely he’ll get a chance to lift major championship trophies again. He’s only 23. Jack Micklaus, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods all won the PGA at age 23. It may be early to start talking like that, but don’t tell Morikawa that.
“I feel very comfortable in this spot. When I woke up today, I was like, this is meant to be," he said.
"This is where I feel very comfortable. This is where I want to be, and I'm not scared from it. I think if I was scared from it, the last few holes would have been a little different, but you want to be in this position. It doesn't stop here. I've got a very good taste of what this is like…this is where I want to be. I love it.”