KAPALUA, Hawaii — The final question of Collin Morikawa’s Saturday post-round press conference didn’t quite land.
Had he ever held a big-time 54-hole lead like this before?
“Well, Hero,” he said with a grin. “It’s okay, I’m over it.”
Ah, yeah, that one. You may recall that Morikawa entered the 2021 Hero World Challenge with a chance to take over the title of World No. 1. In that tournament, he shot 8-under 64 to take a five-shot lead heading to the final round. But then he shot 41 on the front nine on Sunday, ultimately settling for T5 as Viktor Hovland went on to win.
That tournament ushered in a challenging 2022 for Morikawa. He was a victim of his own success, to an extent; two majors before age 25 sets the bar unreasonably high. It’s not as though he played poorly; he logged a handful of top-five finishes including one at the Masters and another at the U.S. Open. But the season dragged. He didn’t get the results he wanted. His world ranking continued to slide.
“Last year felt so long,” he said. “That middle of the season really from Players all the way through the playoffs just felt like it never ended.” He used the word “searching” a couple times. Mostly, it sounds like he’s been searching for a win.
“It’s felt like a while, especially since you see my peers and friends get up to the top and, yeah. Tomorrow’s a big one.”
Three rounds into the 2023 calendar year, it’s tough to imagine anybody playing better golf than Morikawa. He’s opened with rounds of 64-66-65 at Kapalua’s par-73 Plantation Course. He looks in full command of his golf swing — he’s third in strokes gained from tee to green — and his greatest weakness, the putter, has looked like a superpower. He’s second in strokes gained putting. Oh yeah, and he hasn’t made a bogey.
Morikawa kicked off his Saturday scoring with an eagle at the par-5 5th. He poured in a 20-footer for birdie at the 6th. He got up and down for birdie at the par-5 9th. His lead grew.
Birdies at 14, 15 and 16 widened the gap. His lead was five playing the 18th. And just when Scottie Scheffler appeared poised to pick up a shot, Morikawa dropped in a 15-footer for birdie. When Scheffler missed his subsequent four-footer, the lead became six.
Now it’s closing time.
Asked what’s at stake on Sunday, Morikawa had a simple answer.
“Winning the golf tournament. That’s all it is. I think it is every time you’re in these positions, just winning the golf tournament. It’s nothing else. I don’t care about anything else. I want to win.”
There’s plenty that would come with a victory. He’d own the honor of first designated event champion (or elevated event champ, or…we’re working on it.) He’d have his sixth PGA Tour win and his first since the 2021 Open Championship. He’d validate his work with new putting and short game coaches Stephen Sweeney and Parker McLachlin. He’d avenge that lost Hero lead. Plus there’d be the little bonus of a $2.7 million first-place check. But he knows better than to get ahead of himself.
“I know it’s going to take a lot,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of guys out there that are going to be firing at pins, making a lot of birdies early on. So that’s just for me to just kind of do what I’ve been doing, staying patient, give myself opportunities and let ’em fall.”
Morikawa says he looks forward to every PGA Tour round because they’re opportunities. Whether you’re in first or last, there’s something to learn. Not this time.
“Tomorrow it’s not about learning. I’m going to put kind of everything I’ve been through and everything I’ve done in the past and just kind of use that to my advantage, hopefully, and just start hole 1 and go strong for 18. It’s a long day out there.”
With a big prize at the end.