On Sunday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, as Collin Morikawa found himself in the midst of becoming the ninth player in PGA Tour history to lose a tournament after holding a six-shot 54-hole lead, there was much talk on the broadcast about the spectre of “scar tissue”. In a way, that’s perfectly understandable. It’s a really big lead he let slip away at Kapalua, and Morikawa’s meltdown was pretty ugly. After making exactly zero bogeys through 67 holes, he proceeded to make three straight on a stretch of the Plantation Course where nobody else had bogeyed them in succession all week.
It’s hard to get inside the head of any professional athlete, but it seemed reasonable to attribute Morikawa’s collapse in some measure to pressure. He got really bad, really fast, and it happened in sight of what would have been his first PGA Tour win in 18 months. Similarly, it seems completely fair to wonder if what happened will live in his head for a while — if winning next time will be a more difficult challenge, and if we might be seeing the start of a pattern. Even Morikawa couldn’t find it in himself to glimpse the silver lining.
“It’s hard to look at the positives, it really is,” he said on Sunday, just after agreeing that the two-shot loss to Jon Rahm was the lowlight of his still nascent professional career.
And yet, this is probably also a great time for perspective. First off, Morikawa is only 25 and already a two-time major champion. That is not an irrelevant fact. Nor is it irrelevant that he won his first major, the PGA at TPC Harding Park in 2020, with one of the all-time clutch shots in PGA Championship history.
Fact is, Morikawa is already a five-time PGA Tour winner, with a DP World Tour Championship to throw in for good measure — en route becoming the first American to win the circuit’s year-long points title. And all of those accolades came after this happened to him at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial:
That crazy lip-out to lose a playoff with Daniel Berger happened in June 2020, but two months later, we had tweets like this one: “I remember when I was worried the Colonial loss might haunt Morikawa.”
Why? Because two months is exactly how long it took him to win the Workday Charity Open and the PGA Championship. If there was scar tissue that summer, it healed pretty quickly, and it stayed healed through the Open Championship that next summer, where he claimed major No. 2, and a tremendous Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in September 2021.
The point is, Collin Morikawa is a great young player, he has thrived under pressure in ways that are extraordinary for anyone, much less a 25-year-old. That’s not to say he hasn’t struggled under pressure, too, Kapalua joining his stumble at Colonial and at the 2021 Hero World Challenge, where he lost a five-shot lead in the final round when he was on the cusp of becoming the World’s No. 1 golfer. He has been on the roller coaster, and so far, what’s gone down has always come up. For a guy who seemed to be on the verge of posting a 30-under score, it seems safe to assume that he’s got the game to come back again.
(There is one other mitigating factor that needs to be mentioned here — while conceding that Morikawa faded down the stretch on Sunday, it’s also important to acknowledge that blowing a six-shot lead is much easier on a course like Kapalua where you can almost guarantee somebody is going to go very low. When 10 under par — the score Rahm shot to charge back on Sunday that included a bogey on the first hole — is not just in play, but almost likely, big leads evaporate quickly and, objectively, it’s far less of a choke to lose such a lead when the natural variation is so huge.)
Let’s go deeper than Morikawa, though. Let’s talk about expectations. We all know Tiger Woods set a skewed standard for actually winning a golf tournament (today, those who crunch the numbers have found that the highest win percentage among pros belongs to Rahm, whose 11-per cent number for all OWGR starts is enhanced by playing in more European events where he has a greater chance of winning). But there’s an argument to be made that Woods also skewed our expectations about playing well under pressure. As a famous frontrunner, he was 14-for-14 with a 54-hole lead in majors and 47-for-50 on the PGA Tour coming before the final round of the 2009 PGA Championship, when he finally lost a Sunday duel to YE Yang. Even then, Woods’ personal life was on the verge of a massive upheaval, so there may be an excuse for the slight blip.
Just like Woods’ penchant for winning, this type of clutch play in his prime was anomalous and may have altered our perception of what’s “normal” in professional golf. Woods only had six second-place finishes in major championships, but go back in the past, and Jack Nicklaus had 19 runners-up to go with his 18 titles. Arnold Palmer finished with at least a share of second 10 times, compared to his seven major crowns. Some of that may have to do with lesser competition in Nicklaus and Palmer’s heyday, but it still speaks to the fact that when Woods got close in the game’s biggest events, he won at an extraordinary clip.
This does not happen in golf anymore. The parity we see in the men’s game may be a result of Woods as an inspirational figure, but while we see modern players emulate his aggression and his commitment to fitness and his general competitive style, we have yet to see anyone who handles pressure like he did. Think of the greats — we don’t need to go into Rory McIlroy’s pressure woes, do we? Or how Jordan Spieth blew a Masters in 2016 a year after one of the greatest seasons ever? Or how Brooks Koepka, the seeming stone-cold killer, did everything he could to cough up the 2019 PGA Championship and hasn’t been the same since? And these are the best of the best!
The point is, losing a big lead, even for an elite professional golfer, is normal. If a top player never loses a big lead, he’s probably Tiger Woods. If a top player does lose a big lead, as Morikawa did at Kapalua, it doesn’t mean he’s on the path to anonimity. It just means he’s existing within the ebbs and flows of pressure performance on the PGA Tour.
Morikawa endured his first winless season in 2022, but the strength of his game at the Sentry TOC proves he’s ready to win again. There are two prevailing tides for someone like Morikawa: the first is his game, the second is his mentality. Like the water in the ocean that heats at a slower rate than the sky above it, the brain can take a moment to remember how to win once the game returns. For Morikawa, the memory of being a champion will catch up to his talent, and at that moment his wave will come.