KAPALUA, Hawaii — After what he called a “frustrating” 2021-22 playing season, Collin Morikawa got serious about getting better.
It was easy to see which areas needed work; the numbers told a clear — if harsh — story. He finished the year 152nd in strokes gained around the green, suggesting his chipping needed work. He finished 131st in strokes gained putting, suggesting his putting needed work, too. That wasn’t an outlier year, either; Morikawa’s short game has held him back since his arrival on Tour. But he’s been so good from tee to green that we didn’t notice. Two major championships and a rise to World No. 2 will help with that.
“It’s not that I was lazy. It’s not that I wasn’t doing things,” Morikawa said on Thursday at Kapalua after opening with a stellar round of nine-under 64. Indeed, he worked tirelessly on his short game. But his sounding board was most often his caddie J.J. Jakovac. “He’s very good, don’t get me wrong,” Morikawa said. “Like, he knows golf.” But this fall, Morikawa decided it was time to bring in the experts.
How do you go about choosing a golf coach? Morikawa has been working with his swing coach, Rick Sessinghaus, since he was eight years old. The full swing was still fully functional, to say the least; his iron play ranked third on Tour last season. Instead he was seeking a coach with a very particular set of skills. He started asking around.
“At our TaylorMade photoshoot I was asking Tommy [Fleetwood], I was asking Rory [McIlroy]. All these guys have different putting coaches. I’ve talked to Max Homa a bunch. Just kind of sneakily asking them questions about what they think of their coaches.”
One name kept coming up: Stephen Sweeney. The Irish coach has an impressive client list across the PGA Tour and LIV including Shane Lowry, Sebastian Munoz, Joaquin Niemann, Carlos Ortiz, Mito Pereira and Aaron Wise. It was a recommendation from Wise that piqued Morikawa’s interest; Wise’s transformation last season saw him become an above-average putter last season after ranking outside the top 170 the previous two years. He reached out to Sweeney ahead of the World Wide Technologies Championship at Mayakoba. They met the Sunday ahead of the tournament and putted until it was dark. The two meshed well.
“Some guys are very technical. Some guys are very free-flowing. I felt like Stephen was kind of that perfect mix where I needed to understand technical from the very start.”
Morikawa called on his inner Michael Scott (“Why don’t you explain this to me like I’m 5?”) to go in with a blank slate and an open mind.
“I want to just pretend like I knew nothing about it, teach me the basics and then from there, go,” he said. “So he’s been able to kind of blend in both and it’s been amazing. Every question I have for him he has an answer.”
Morikawa also spent last week working on his chipping with Parker McLachlin, also known as the “Short Game Chef,” a former Tour pro who lives in Hawaii, where he’s a short-game guru.
“The reason why I hit my irons so good is because of that bowed wrist,” Morikawa said. “But how I come through impact just makes chipping really tough. It’s good to have someone that knows a lot about short game and you just kind of bounce ideas off.”
And while McLachlin won’t be on the road traveling the Tour, Morikawa expects to lean on him going forward, too.
“I never had a chipping coach and we’re not here to get too technical, it’s just to have feels and, once again, have someone else bounce ideas off of, someone that I trust, see who how it goes.”
Morikawa agreed with the assessment of one reporter who compared his offseason to that of the Chicago Cubs, filling gaps on their team. His team is bigger now and more well-rounded. Sessinghaus and Sweeney, with an assist from McLachlin? So far, so good.
“I just have answers,” he said. “Before when I was putting it was like, guess work. I might have putted well today and then thought I was doing something, but in reality it was something else.”
It all worked on Thursday at Kapalua’s Plantation Course, where Morikawa caught fire with six birdies in a row to start the back nine. His nine-under 64 was tied for first with J.J. Spaun, gaining on the field even at the low-scoring Tournament of Champions.
One round in, 2023 is looking up.