HARTFORD, Conn. – Officials of the biggest sporting event in Connecticut have become well known for giving sponsor’s exemptions to many of the top young players in golf, many of whom had just graduated from college, in hopes that they will return in the future.
Notables to get a free pass to play at Wethersfield Country Club and now TPC River Highlands in Cromwell began with future Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller in 1975 and has continued with the likes of fellow major winners David Duval, Justin Thomas, Justin Leonard, John Daly, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink, a two-time Canon Greater Hartford Open titlist, as well as popular Rickie Fowler and Top 10 players Jon Rahm and Patrick Cantlay.
But tournament director Nathan Grube and Travelers executive vice president and chief administrative officer Andy Bessette outdid themselves last year when four exemptions went to the top amateurs in the country after their college seasons ended: Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Justin Suh. Each of the foursome was outgoing, gregarious and well-spoken during a joint press conference two days before the tournament, with Morikawa gaining a slight edge over his collegiate friends and foes thanks to a soft-spoken maturity beyond his years.
“Giving some of the best young players in golf an opportunity to play in our event has helped us build a relationship with them as they wrap up their amateur careers and turn pro,” Grube said at the time. “What Viktor, Justin, Collin and Matthew have been able to accomplish at the amateur level is impressive, and we’re looking forward to seeing what they can do as professionals at TPC River Highlands.”
Only Suh missed the cut, and Morikawa, Hovland and Wolff all won in their first six months on the PGA Tour, giving them exempt status through 2021. The 23-year-old Morikawa was the first of the celebrated threesome to get to three victories, and he did it in spectacular fashion Sunday in the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.
Morikawa, a four-time All-American at the University of California, sank a 40-foot chip for birdie at the 14th hole to break out of a seven-way tie for the lead, but that was far from his best/biggest shot of the day. His drive on the 294-yard, par-4 16th hole rolled within 7 feet of the cup, setting up an eagle 2 that catapulted him to a 6-under-par 64, a 72-hole total of 13-under 267 and a two-stroke victory over Travelers Championship winner Dustin Johnson and Englishman Paul Casey, a frequent challenger in Cromwell seeking his first major title in 64 attempts.
“I had no plans on going for 16 at all this week because it’s too much into the wind,” Morikawa said. “But I didn’t think the pin was going to be where it was, like 278 (yards) to the front, just a good drive for me. My caddie (J.J. Jakovac) looked at me, counted off, asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him, ‘Let’s hit a good drive.’ Those are moments I’m always going to remember. I hit it, J.J. actually walked on the tee, he never does that, and was talking to the ball a bunch. I don’t really talk to it too much, but we were both screaming at it to get a good bounce.
“We obviously got a very good bounce, and you just have to capitalize on those shots. I didn’t have to make the putt, but it was one that was really going to turn the tables on everyone else, and that’s why I brought J.J. in to add a little more sense of comfort. Did I feel nervous? Yeah, there’s going to be nerves running through there, but can I channel that into excitement, can I channel that into focus. I hit a really good putt, did a really good job down the stretch and now we’re here (in the winner’s circle).”
Casey had just birdied No. 16 to tie for the lead and was on the 17th tee when he witnessed Morikawa’s drive.
“What a shot,” Casey said of the drive seen by few others due to no spectators being allowed on the course because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Nothing you can do but tip your cap to that. Collin has taken on that challenge and pulled it off. That’s what champions do.”
After his stirring win, Morikawa reflected back on the pre-Travelers Championship press conference with his buddies 131/2 months earlier.
“I’m on Cloud Nine, but I’ve believed in myself since Day One,” Morikawa said. “I specifically remember the four of us at the Travelers, and I just told everyone that we all have had some pretty good paths. Justin has struggled a little bit, but we all believed since Day One that we can do this. I haven’t let up from that and feel very comfortable in this position.
“But I knew it was going to take a very, very good round, and I knew with the leaderboard the way it was looking and everyone out there, you just had to play well. You either win or you lose, and I got off to a little shaky start. But I made a (20-foot) putt on No. 1 and went full steam ahead.”
Morikawa’s 64 tied the lowest final round by a PGA winner shot by Steve Elkington in 1995 and enabled him to have as many major titles as cuts in his first 29 PGA Tour starts, the latter coming in the Travelers Championship in June. Morikawa’s only bobble of the day occurred after he received the Wanamaker Trophy from PGA of America president Suzy Whaley, a longtime Connecticut resident who became the first woman to be voted an officer in the organization when chosen secretary in 2015.
When Morikawa tried to lift the heaviest of the four major trophies, the lid fell off, nearly hit him in the head and tumbled to the grass as his eyes bulged. But in his typical mature manner, Morikawa broke into a familiar wide smile and laughed with Whaley, other PGA of America officials and CBS announcer Jim Nantz, who was emceeing the trophy presentation.
Morikawa, who is half-Japanese and half-Chinese, began the day two strokes behind Johnson, whose 21st PGA Tour victory in a 13th consecutive winning season came in the Travelers Championship but had won only one major title with five second-place finishes. After making the lengthy save at the first hole, Morikawa sank birdie putts of 15 and 5 feet on Nos. 3 and 4 and then made five pars to turn in 33.
Morikawa chipped to a foot for a birdie 4 at No. 10 and then holed the lengthy chip at the 14th hole to get to 11 under. The memorable eagle and two pars at the end enabled him to finish a bogey-free round and prevail in what he called his “second home” in the delayed return of championship golf due to the pandemic. He demonstrated he’s the most complete player among the young stars, winning in only his second major start with the lowest closing 36-hole score (129) in PGA history, moving to No. 2 in the FedExCup standings and fifth in the world rankings and becoming the third-youngest player since World War II to win the event behind Rory McIlroy and Jack Nicklaus.
“When I woke up today, I was like, ‘This is meant to be,’ ” said Morikawa, who made 22 straight cuts as a pro before missing in Cromwell and then returning home to iron out a few things with Rick Sessinghaus, his coach for 15 years. “This is where I feel very comfortable, 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.
“And it doesn’t stop here. I’ve got a very good taste of what a major championship is like. I really do miss the fans and know we all had to have some type of adjustment not having them. When fans do start coming back at some point, it’s going to be an adjustment, but this is where I want to be. I love it. The majors are going to be circled in, just like for everyone else, but I’ve got to focus on every single week. I’m not trying to come out and just win the majors.
“This is my first full year (on the PGA Tour), and I love every part of it. I love being in this position, and I love just being able to come out and play with a bunch of guys that love the sport, too, and that’s why I think I love being in this position.”
Johnson never got fully untracked, shooting 1-under 34 on the front nine to fall into the logjam at the top. He bogeyed the 14th hole, where Morikawa had made birdie, to drop out of contention before he birdied Nos. 16 and 18 for 68 and a second consecutive runner-up finish. Johnson, who didn’t talk to the media afterwards, now has three seconds in the last five majors played, giving him a total of five. He had a one-stroke lead on the final hole of the 2010 PGA Championship before a penalty for grounding his club in a bunker that he thought was a waste area dropped him into a tie for fifth.
Casey, who finished in the top 5 in three of the last five Travelers Championships, birdied three of the first 10 holes to move into serious contention. He bogeyed the 13th hole but birdied No. 14 to get into a tie for the lead with Morikawa but made only one more birdie, at No. 16, to fall two strokes short.
“I played phenomenal golf, and there’s nothing I would change,” Casey said. “I’m very, very happy with how I played and kind of got my mojo back. Great attitude. Stayed very calm and stayed in the present, but it wasn’t enough. You have to tip your cap to Collin’s glorious shots on 16 to make eagle. When he popped up on Tour not long ago, those guys who were paying attention like myself knew that this was something special, and he proved it today. He’s already sort of proved it, but he’s really stamped his authority on how good he is.”
Wolff, who grew up with Morikawa in Southern California and had six wins in 2019 that included the NCAA Championship, shot 65 to tie for fourth at 270 with Jason Day (66), Bryson DeChambeau (66), Tony Finau (66) and rookie Scottie Scheffler (68). Wolff and Cameron Champ (70-272, tie for 10th) were the two players, not otherwise exemption, to earn spots in the U.S. Open on Aug. 20-23 at Winged Foot GC in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Rahm (66-273, tie for 13th) returned to No. 1 in the world rankings after replacing Justin Thomas following last week’s World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. Despite losing his No. 1 ranking, Thomas (70-279, tie for 37th) maintained his lead in the FedExCup standings with one week remaining in the regular season before the playoffs begin with The Northern Trust on Aug. 20-23 at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass.
Brooks Koepka, seeking a third consecutive PGA win, began the final round tied for fourth but closed with 74 to finish in a tie for 29th at 277. Tiger Woods, making only his second PGA Tour start since February, shot 67 to tie for 37th.