KAPALUA, Hawaii — The final question posed to Collin Morikawa at his post-round Saturday press conference turned out to be foreshadowing of the most painful kind.
Had he ever held a big-time 54-hole lead like this before?
Morikawa, whose lead was six, paused.
“Well, Hero,” he said with a grin. “It’s okay, I’m over it.”
“Hero” referred to the 2021 Hero World Challenge, where he’d needed a win to get to World No. 1. He put himself in position, building a five-shot lead through three rounds, only to shoot 41 on the front nine Sunday and evaporate from contention. He wound up a heartbroken T5.
But Morikawa appeared to brush aside the memory. The assembled reporters did, too. This wouldn’t be like that. Top-tier golfers convert large 54-hole leads at remarkable rates, after all. Per Justin Ray, there had been 25 Tour pros in the last 15 years to enter the final round with a lead of six or more shots. Twenty-three of them had gone on to win. This was the biggest third-round lead anybody had ever held at Kapalua. And Morikawa was in such cruise control he hadn’t yet made a bogey.
Still, the skeptics among you would suggest the entire thing had been too easy. The narrative too neat. Golf is supposed to be messy, not a game of perfect. It can’t be solved. Collin Morikawa had touched down in Hawaii with a reformed putting stroke and a revamped chipping strategy and, for three and a half rounds, had turned his only weaknesses into a superpower? No way.
Early in the week, Jon Rahm was asked if the Sentry Tournament of Champions owed him one. Last year, after all, he shot 33 under par and lost to Cameron Smith’s PGA Tour-record 34 under. He’d finished runner-up in 2018, too. But Rahm only shrugged.
“I can make a case for that on a lot of golf courses,” he said.
His statement wasn’t meant to be cocky, only matter-of-fact. But it was a reminder of Rahm’s relentlessness. When he’s in the field, he generally contends. That has been particularly true of late — he entered the week with two wins and two more top-fives in his last five starts — and it was less than a year ago that Rahm was the unquestioned World No. 1.
Still, he was so far back entering the Sunday’s round that he didn’t think twice about what he normally considers an off-limits final-round outfit. He likes to wear a pinkish-red shirt on Sundays but typically avoids pairing it with black pants out of respect for golf’s most iconic uniform.
“I usually don’t want to wear anything that’s close to red and black on Sundays because of Tiger. That’s his outfit,” he said.
Instead, he’ll pair the shirt with gray or navy pants. But in his preparations for Maui Rahm neglected to pack his usual supply of belts. (“I also forgot socks,” he said. “Yeah, I forgot a few things.”) By the time he got to Sunday, he’d run through his supply of navy pants, too. Red and black it was.
“We’re so far away [from the lead], whatever,” Rahm told himself. “I’m like, we’re going to need a small miracle.”
After he bogeyed the first hole and Morikawa made birdie, Rahm was nine shots back.
“I was going to need somewhat of a larger miracle,” he said.
At Kapalua, the scenery obscures the tension. On television, soaring drone shots capture kayakers, surfers, whales breaching. On the ground, vacationers take in dramatic views of Molokai, the neighboring island, rising sharply out of the cobalt-blue Pacific.
In the lead-up to the tournament, the golfers take full advantage of the surroundings, too. Rahm was among a slate of pros who’d arrived a week early to vacation. He and his wife Kelley have decided it’s their week to spend together with their two young kids.
“The week before the tournament we come early, around the 27th usually,” Rahm said. “We always tell our families, I’m going to put my phone in the drawer, see ya.” It’s a long season, he added, and it’s nice to fully recharge before the calendar year begins.
“I still practice and play a lot of golf, but I’m still going to the pool afterward and enjoying it,” he said. “So I think when you’re ready to come and lay down and have Mai Tais and Pina Coladas I think the island is like, bring it on, embrace it.”
You could be confused into thinking that the entire tournament has, as Rahm mentioned, a “chill atmosphere.” There was Sam Burns on Friday, making bogey at No. 11 and punting his ball (successfully, I should add) into the bushes behind the green. There was Scottie Scheffler, who missed a four-footer on 18 on Saturday and stormed (politely, but directly) from scoring to the putting green to work it out. There was Rahm himself, missing a putt on the 18th green and turning away from the grandstands to roar an expletive into the neighboring ravine. It’s chill right up to the point that it isn’t.
“He’s definitely passionate,” said Tom Kim, who played alongside Rahm on Sunday. “There’s a lot of fire — a lot of fire — and there’s no give-up at all.” Not this week or any other.
This week’s stakes were high, too. Because it’s a PGA Tour event, for one. Because it’s a top-tier field, for two. And also because it was billed as the first “designated event,” where the Tour’s top stars are all (pretty much) required to show up and compete. This week’s winner would own a slice of Tour history. Plus $2.7 million.
“I know it’s going to take a lot,” Morikawa said on Saturday night, despite his six-shot lead. “I don’t care about anything else. I want to win.”
Morikawa looked like a winner as he stood on the 14th tee, waiting for the green to clear. Black shirt. Black pants. White shoes. Sharp. Poised. Focused. A few of his putts had slid past in recent holes, but this was his tournament to win; Rahm had just made birdie at 14 but Morikawa still led by 3. And he still hadn’t made a bogey.
His tee shot hung just right of the green and found the bunker some 25 yards short of the front pin. It was the sort of shot that would make an amateur golfer shake like a leaf — a lengthy carry to a short-sided flag — but Morikawa’s short game had looked better than ever.
“I’ve been in that bunker, it’s not like it’s an impossible bunker shot,” he said post-round. “Normally 10 out of 10 times you’re putting that to within 15 feet, at worst.”
This was that 11th time. Morikawa caught more ball than sand and sent it hurtling over the back of the green, now 25 yards long of the hole, where it settled into some thick rough. He played a nifty shot to 10 feet but looked tentative on his sliding par putt, leaving it short and low of the hole. His first bogey paired with an eager announcement from a phone-wielding fan behind the green.
“Oh my god,” he said. “Rahm just eagled 15.” His 12-foot eagle putt had capped off a stretch of four holes he played in five under par. Suddenly they were tied.
Now it was Morikawa’s turn to play the hole. But where Rahm had found the putting surface, Morikawa’s approach trickled off the right side and down the steep greenside slope.
“I pushed that 5-wood just enough and knew it was going to roll down,” he said.
Chris, the final group’s standard-bearer, is an employee at the club. He’s hit that chip before and didn’t envy Morikawa’s situation.
“That chip is so grainy, dude,” he said. “I mean, so, so grainy. If you catch it even a little bit heavy, you’re dead.”
He proved a prophet. Morikawa’s wedge caught turf before ball and his TaylorMade advanced just 20 feet. He overcompensated by hitting his next pitch some 10 feet past the hole. When his putt stayed just out, he was suddenly one shot back.
It was surreal to see Morikawa repeat the same painful sequence at No. 16; his approach missed in the wrong spot, he chipped to seven feet and missed the putt. After an airtight short game propelled him to 67 bogey-free holes, he’d now made three in a row.
Up ahead, Rahm saw a scoreboard to the right of the 17th green. He couldn’t believe his eyes.
“It said I was in first place, and it didn’t say T1,” he said. “I kind of looked at [his caddie] Adam, like, ‘what’s going on?'”
Rahm had reached 26 under par, but he’d assumed he’d need something closer to 30 under to stay ahead of Morikawa, who had reached 27 under before even making the turn. By the time Rahm’s tee shot landed on the final fairway he held a two-shot lead. He’d just found out he was in contention — now he was about to win.
The 18th at the Plantation Course is one of the most scenic holes on any course anywhere, 670 yards of ski-slope downhill, Hawaiian perfection in the distance. Rahm enjoyed the walk. He stayed aggressive with his approach shot, taking dead aim at a left pin and trickling just off the back left edge of the green. From there he navigated a tricky chip and left himself with just inside five feet for a tournament-clinching birdie. He buried it, cementing his eighth PGA Tour win with a long fist pump.
When Morikawa emerged from the scoring area some 20 minutes later, he jogged ahead to catch Rahm’s attention. He gave him a congratulatory hug, then another to Rahm’s caddie Adam Hayes. And then he proceeded, still shell-shocked, to answer questions.
What was he feeling?
“Sadness,” Morikawa said, taking a breath. “I don’t know. It sucks. You work so hard to give yourself these opportunities and just bad timing on bad shots and kind of added up really quickly.”
You could see the wheels turning, the well-trained athlete’s instinct to see the bright side, but nothing came up but the sting of defeat.
“I don’t know what I’m going to learn from this week,” he said. “But it just didn’t seem like it was that far off. It really wasn’t. Yeah, it sucks.”
He reflected on the inflection point, citing the 15th green.
“I didn’t see the leaderboard until I got on the green and you realize I’m putting for par to stay tied for the lead,” he said. “At that point, it’s a little different feeling than what you had early on.”
Someone posed the sports pundit question: Had Rahm won it or had he lost it?
“A little bit of both,” Morikawa admitted. “I mean, one under on this course is not a good score. It really isn’t. I was three under through six holes and three-putted 5 as well. He still also shot 63. But I still, ya’know, I still had it within reach.”
He kept digging the trench of self-disappointment, citing this as likely the low point in his pro career.
“It’s hard to look at the positives, it really is,” he concluded.
There’s reason for encouragement, of course. The first three-and-a-half rounds were still very real. He still finished in solo second place at 25 under par and still looks to have made major progress on his short game and still pulled in $1.5 million. That should buy a couple of Mai Tais as he sticks around Hawaii in the coming days.
Rahm appreciated Morikawa’s position. “It’s not easy,” he said of protecting a six-shot lead. “At one point he was leading by eight or nine, so I don’t blame him for being conservative.”
But when asked if he felt bad for his vanquished opponent, Rahm couldn’t help but answer honestly.
“I don’t know how to answer that without sounding very rude,” he said. “As a competitor, no, I want to win. That’s all I can tell you. I’ve been where he is before. I’ve made a mess of a round before. Especially in amateur golf, I’ve done it before. I think we’ve all been there. You don’t want to see that happen, really, ever. You want to beat everybody at their best. But if the best Collin had shown up today I wouldn’t have won.”
One tournament into 2023, the rest of the golf world is on notice. While Rahm only rose from No. 5 to No. 4 in the world (he tossed another not-so-veiled shot at the World Ranking system post-round) there’s no question that he’s playing as well as anybody. Just ask him.
“In my mind, I feel like since August I’ve been the best player in the world,” he said.
The idea of the PGA Tour’s new-look, new-feel “designated events” is that they’ll pit the best in the world against each other more often. The idea is that rivalries will form. Drama will unfold. Golf will remind people that for all its tediousness, things can change in an instant. We’ve been reminded more and more over the past year that professional golf is an entertainment product. The joy of winning, the agony of defeat and the fact that the two reside in such close quarters? That’s the product.
They’re off to a good start.