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(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a four-part series about defending PGA champion Collin Morikawa.)
Collin Morikawa has rarely been the biggest guy in the room.
Mind you, he isn’t the 97-pound weakling on the beach, but he’s never been mistaken for the muscle-bound bully kicking sand on people, either.
He tips out at 5 feet, 9 inches, about 160 on the scales. He’s heard the jokes of being vertically challenged – prompt the joker saying the rain takes longer to hit his head – but has never wept he didn’t top out at 6 feet, 3 inches and 200 pounds.
He’s brushed off the jokes and even enjoyed a laugh at his expense, especially when he stands next to his caddie, J.J. Jakovac.
“It’s always funny that I look like a child next to him; his massive 6-4 frame over my 5-9 frame,” he said.
But since childhood, Morikawa has more than made do with his size and never shied from dealing with bigger kids, teens, adults. He certainly didn’t go all Napoleon complex. Instead, whatever the size and scope of the challenge, be it on the golf course or in the classroom, Morikawa has put his head down and worked, experimented and moved forward.
It sure did work out.
Despite not being the longest player on the lot, he’s always played large. Goliath large. So as he defends his title in this week’s PGA Championship on the enormous Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, he’ll figure out a way to battle the beast of a course and the best in the world. Just as he has since he followed his parents to the golf course at age 5 and started standing out on every golf course he visited.
Morikawa put together a top-notch junior career followed by a monster amateur career, which included his All-American star turn at Cal. He made his first 22 cuts as a pro, a feat bested only by Tiger Woods.
He won the 2019 Barracuda Championship in just his sixth start on the PGA Tour as a pro. After losing in a playoff to Daniel Berger in the 2020 Charles Schwab Challenge, the first tournament played after the COVID-19 global pandemic shut down the PGA Tour for 13 weeks, he toppled major champion Justin Thomas in a playoff to win the Workday Charity Open.
Collin Morikawa takes a sip of a Memorial Tournament milkshake, given only to the winner this week, while holding the championship trophy after winning a three-hole playoff against Justin Thomas in the final round of the Workday Charity Open. Photo by Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch via USA TODAY NETWORK
Morikawa won the 2020 PGA Championship in just his second start in a major, his “shot heard ‘round the world” a drive that found the green 294 yards away on the 70th hole. It showed he could hang with the longest players in professional golf with the longest club in the bag.
That was his third victory in 29 starts on the PGA Tour. He added his fourth at the World Golf Championships-Workday Championship at The Concession this year. That’s four wins in his first 45 starts on the PGA Tour. And he’s No. 6 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
So that size of the dog in the fight thing? Well, Morikawa proves it’s the size of the fight in the dog that matters.
“From a very young age, I’ve always had the belief that I could overcome any obstacle and I never thought about quitting. I felt like if I gave myself enough time and effort to give myself a shot, I could do it and go out and beat the best,” Morikawa said. “It takes a lot of luck, support from people around you and I’m fortunate to have that in my corner. I never took anything for granted. Everything I did had a purpose and everything I do has a purpose. I put full effort into everything. I’m trying to learn as much as I can. There’s always an unknown.
“I think I was just born with my competitive fire. I hate losing. I will compete against anybody at anything.”
Rick Sessinghaus found that out immediately. He’s one of the key members of Morikawa’s team, which also includes his parents, Blaine and Debbie; caddie J.J. Jakovac; agent Andrew Kipper; and girlfriend Katherine Zhu, who played collegiate golf at Pepperdine and understands the rigors of playing golf at a high level, which Morikawa appreciates.
Collin Morikawa and his coach Rick Sessinghaus with the Wanamaker Trophy after the final round of the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Sessinghaus, a PGA Professional, eagerly agreed to start teaching Morikawa when he was 8, and they’ve been together for 16 years and counting. Despite Sessinghaus’ size advantage and superior golf skills – he was 33 when they met – the two waged battles on the golf course after every lesson, Morikawa never giving an inch and never sulking if he lost.
And while Morikawa insists he’s never heard anyone say he wasn’t long enough to compete against the best – likely in one ear and out the other – Sessinghaus has heard it and was equally dismissive.
“He’s not the longest, but he is Iron Byron,” Sessinghaus said. “He gets the ball closest to the hole more times than anyone else. Collin is creative, a precise player who wins. We have a plan moving forward; he has a trainer, and we will make incremental advances to try to get longer if need be.
“But this is a game to be played; it’s not a long drive contest. There are a lot of variables. Lowest score wins. So you don’t change the essence of the player.”
Despite the age difference – Morikawa is 24, Sessinghaus 49 – the two meshed instantly for two huge reasons. One, their love for the game. And two, they both have – cue Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction – a big brain.
“Everything about Collin looks like he’s got ‘it,” said two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN analyst Curtis Strange. “Nobody has this game figured out or any part of it figured out, but he looks like, at such a young age, he has such a mature a golf IQ as anybody that’s come along in a long time.”
Collin Morikawa watches after teeing off on the 16th hole during the final round of the 2020 PGA Championship golf tournament at TPC Harding Park. (Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
Off the golf course, too. Morikawa has a Bachelor’s degree in business administration; Sessinghaus a Bachelor’s Degree in Speech Communications and a Masters and Doctorate in Applied Sports Psychology. They both are curious souls, both crave knowledge, both don’t fear change. And that, to Morikawa, is as important as what he does with a golf club in his hand.
“I’m always trying to figure out how to get better,” Morikawa said. “That’s the nature of what we do. I’m going to keep trying new things.”
Especially when it comes to the shortest club.
“In college we would joke sometimes. Let’s say he had a top 5 and I would tongue in cheek say, ‘So, which putter did you use? Or which putter grip did you use?’ Through college he was experimenting,” Sessinghaus said.
It didn’t stop when he turned pro, either.
Ahead of this year’s Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club north of Los Angeles, Morikawa hooked up with two-time major champion Mark O’Meara, who employs the saw grip. Morikawa soaked it in and changed grips.
“He doesn’t do anything haphazard,” Sessinghaus said. “The rationale behind the change made sense to me. He was achieving what he wanted to achieve. The putter was moving through the impact area much freer, he was releasing the putter head much better, so it looked like something we wanted to try.
“That week when J.J, saw it, he said it looked great. But the stats didn’t back it up that week. He had a poor putting performance on that Sunday, but he said he felt comfortable over the ball and I said great. He doesn’t change for change’s sake.
“And the next week he won.”
Collin Morikawa celebrates with his caddie J.J. Jakovac after winning 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park. (Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
Back to the size thing.
Despite Morikawa’s vast, rapid success – he’s won nearly $10 million in prize money; has sponsor deals with TaylorMade, Adidas, Zurich Insurance, Omega, Grant Thornton, Therabody and US Bank; and is a regular presence during golf tournaments on commercials – he hasn’t gotten a big head.
For starters, he’s always believed he’d be where he is, one of the best players in the world. For another, he’s extremely humble.
“He doesn’t come across as the guy who wants to tell you how good he is,” said Viktor Hovland, another young stud who met Morikawa at college tournaments and now goes toe-to-toe against him on the PGA Tour. “I’m very impressed about what he does inside the ropes. His attitude out here is very relaxed, and he obviously knows he belongs. He’s very professional. To play as good as he has without a long game that is super long, is a testament to how the rest of his game is and his mental strength.
“He’s just really good at so many things.”
Sessinghaus added he’s never heard Morikawa brag.
“He is always looking at what is next, and when you look at what is next, you don’t wallow in what has been done,” he said. “He stays humble because there is more to do. If he thinks about what he’s done, that could derail him going forward.
“I’ve told him to embrace successes and reaffirm what you did well. We want to reinforce things. He knows what he did was great but there’s more to do.”
Starting this week on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. The course could play at 7,876 yards – making it the longest course in major championship history.
“It’s a big golf course, I’ll tell you that,” Morikawa said. “Pars are your friend out there. Obviously very wind dependent. If you don’t have any wind it’s playable, but if it’s windy that back nine can pick up.
“It’s going to be a great test because it’s going to test every part of your game.”
Which suits Morikawa just fine.
“He doesn’t have a weakness in his game,” Tony Finau said. “He doesn’t have a weakness mentally. So when you’re dealing with that type of talent, he’s going to be somebody to beat in major championships.
“This isn’t a guy that’s just going to pop up and disappear for the next five years.”
Paul Casey, who tied for second in the 2020 PGA Championship, knew that long before Morikawa hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy.
“There’s always a bunch of guys that rock up on the scene, and he didn’t necessarily get the most publicity out of the group he was in, but you know, I can consider myself veteran. I’ve been around the block, so I know talent when I see it,” Casey said. “We could just tell. Those of us who knew, knew that he’s the one.
“And we weren’t wrong.”