Monday Scramble: Collin Morikawa's short-game woes lead to historic collapse

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Collin Morikawa comes undone, Jon Rahm roars home, Xander Schauffele exits early, Augusta National extends a welcome invite and more in this season-opening edition of the Monday Scramble:

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In his short but spectacular career, Collin Morikawa has developed a reputation as a quick study.

He graduated on time from Cal’s prestigious Haas School of Business despite playing a busy, global amateur schedule. He won on the PGA Tour in his sixth pro start. And he captured two majors, a World Golf Championship, the Race to Dubai and a handful of other events before his 25th birthday.

But Morikawa has always been dogged by a suspect short game and putter, and those areas couldn’t be fixed virtually overnight. The result was what we saw Sunday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions: Staked to a six-shot lead, Morikawa stumbled through one of the easiest stretches of the entire Tour season and shockingly coughed up a chance to win for the first time in 14 months.

There is no doubt that Morikawa has made strides to address those glaring deficiencies. But what unfolded at Kapalua was hard to watch: the missed 10-footers, the thinned bunker shot, the flubbed pitches. A too-little-too-late birdie on the final hole gave him a final-round 72 – three-and-a-half shots worse than the field average, and the second-worst score of the day. Though Morikawa went bogey-free for the first 67 holes, that was the opening a red-hot Jon Rahm needed to storm from behind with a Sunday 63 to steal the first title of the new year.

'Sadness' in Hawaii: Collin Morikawa now tasked with making sense of historic collapse

Morikawa didn’t dodge reporters afterward, nor did he make any excuses or attempt to downplay his emotions. He said he was filled with "sadness" and that it "sucks" and that, in the moment, it was "hard to look at the positives."

But here's one: Morikawa is only a few months into his work with putting coach Stephen Sweeney. Morikawa has occasionally putted well in the past, and when he makes putts, we know what he’s capable of: In seven career tournaments he has gained a least a shot per round on the greens. In those events, he has three wins and three runners-up. And so, in other words, if he putts well, he either wins or comes close.

But, oftentimes, he said, his speed control is way off, and any positive results are more “guesswork” than anything else.

With help from Sweeney, though Morikawa has a new trigger (squaring up his palms before gripping the putter) and a longer, smoother backswing in which the clubhead falls on the back of the ball, rather than “hitting” it. Over the past few months, he and his team said Morikawa has never worked harder.

And for three rounds on the Plantation Course, at least, it appeared as though Morikawa’s grind had paid off. He putted beautifully. He was tops in the field and gaining nearly seven shots on the greens. But the ultimate test of those changes came Sunday, when the pressure was ratcheted up, when he wasn’t quite as sharp, and when a host of big-name contenders had nothing to lose. When he absolutely needed a big putt to build momentum, Morikawa didn’t make a putt longer than 2 feet from the seventh hole to the 17th.

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Morikawa’s short game remains a work in progress, too. In recent weeks he has consulted with former Tour pro Parker McLaughlin (nicknamed the “short-game chef”) to refine an action that is complicated by his bowed left wrist. That position is ideal with the full swing – it’s the reason he’s been the best iron player on Tour since coming out of college – but makes touchy shots around the green that much more challenging.

Morikawa was 6-for-6 in scrambling through the first three rounds, but perhaps lingering in the back of his mind was a stubbed pitch on the 18th hole in the second round. With the added tension of the final day, he got up-and-down just once in four tries, including critical errors inside 75 yards on Nos. 14-16 – one of the easiest stretches of the entire Tour schedule. The field played those holes 44 under par; Morikawa was 3 over.

“When you’re getting bogeys at that time of the tournament, they’re costly,” Morikawa said. “I definitely felt the weight of that.”

He'll also feel the weight of a second huge blown lead. At the 2021 Hero World Challenge, Morikawa had a five-shot lead and was 18 holes away from becoming No. 1 in the world for the first time. But even in a sleepy exhibition, he couldn’t deliver, signing for a 76 and then going on to post his first winless campaign in 2022. His unraveling at Kapalua matched the largest squandered lead in Tour history.

Now, despite his sterling early-career résumé, Morikawa will have to overcome his own self-doubt the next time he puts himself in position to win. He's assembled a team to help him get there. If we've learned anything, it's not to bet against the fast learner.

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Who is the best driver on Tour?

For years, the default answer has been Rory McIlroy.

The correct answer is Rahm.

Since arriving on Tour, Rahm has never been worse than fifth in strokes gained: off the tee. But over the past five years, he has consistently gotten even better:

  • 2018-19: .692 strokes gained per round off the tee

  • 2019-20: .756

  • 2020-21: .834

  • 2021-22: 1.025

  • Currently: 1.123

No one possesses his rare combination of power (5th in distance last season) and accuracy (56th).

So, how does that manifest itself in competition?

Kapalua’s Plantation Course is the most forgiving Tour layout, offering enormous fairways and greens that help pad a player’s stats – and yet Rahm was still able to separate himself.

On the back nine alone Sunday, Rahm gained 1.66 strokes on the field with his tee shots. That put him in prime position to hunt down Morikawa and shoot an inward 31 to snag the first Tour title of 2023. He's now 60 (!) under par in his last two trips to Kapalua.

Rahm’s signature blow came on the 15th hole:

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Knowing that a deep tee ball could give him even more of an advantage, Rahm “made a point of swinging hard at that one,” launching a 355-yard rocket that scampered down the hill and left him just 158 yards to the flag. Rather than having a long iron or fairway wood from a hanging lie into the elevated par-5 green with severe runoffs, Rahm left himself just a three-quarter 8-iron from a flat spot. (Morikawa’s 5-wood trickled into the grainy low area short and right of the green, leading to a bogey.)

Rahm, though, stuck his approach to 11 feet, poured in the eagle putt, and a few moments later was tied for the lead.

“I don’t think I could have placed it any better,” he said afterward. “I think that would be the most important one.”

Rahm’s victory gave him three wins in his last five worldwide starts. Though his position remained unchanged in the Official World Golf Ranking, he knows he isn’t playing like the fifth-best player on the planet.

“In my mind,” he said, “I feel like since August I’ve been the best player in the world.”

If he continues on this run, the math will soon catch up.

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Xander Schauffele’s 2023 got off to an inauspicious start when he withdrew during the second round because of a back injury.

The issue actually dated to last year – he felt some discomfort during the Hero World Challenge in December but gutted it out in the 72-hole exhibition. Because he felt so good afterward, he didn’t bother to undergo an MRI exam, even for confirmation that he wasn’t dealing with any structural issue in his back. In hindsight, he said, that was an “immature” decision.

Xander Schauffele WDs mid-round Friday at Kapalua, despite wanting to 'chug forward'

And so, with his team imploring him to think long-term about his health, Schauffele opted to pull out midway through the TOC to get some answers back home in Las Vegas. The world No. 6 doesn’t believe the issue is significant – but he’s also a bit worried because he’s never dealt with a back problem.

Tests this week will determine his upcoming schedule; he was slated to play four of the next six events, including next week at the American Express. But all of a sudden that’s in doubt. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery – X was primed for a monster year.

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In what could be monumental news for the college golf community, Augusta National extended a Masters invitation to the reigning NCAA individual champion.

Vanderbilt sophomore Gordon Sargent is one of the game’s most promising up-and-comers, the top-ranked college player in the country and the first newcomer to win the NCAA’s top prize in 15 years. He’s now also headed to the Masters, along with 2022 Japan Tour Order of Merit winner Kazuki Higa.

It remains to be seen whether Sargent’s invitation is a one-off for the NCAA champion or the start of a trend.

Over the past few years the NCAA Championship has become the preeminent stroke-play amateur tournament in the world, with the best college players battling it out over 72 holes in Scottsdale not just for team positioning for match play but also the individual crown. With the increased visibility there’s been a push for the NCAA winner to receive some additional perks, especially with the U.S. Amateur champion AND runner-up both getting invitations to the Masters.

NCAA champ Gordon Sargent, Kazuki Higa added to Masters field

There are a few potential complications to work through.

Each amateur Masters invitation comes with the caveat “provided he remains amateur …”, which would require that the NCAA champion potentially wait 11 months to turn pro just to cash in the invitation. Also, the pedigree of the recent champions has run the gamut: Yes, Sargent is now the third-ranked amateur in the world and a can’t-miss stud, but Broc Everett, Braden Thornberry and Cameron Wilson are among those who haven’t panned out in recent years, and ANGC likely wants to maintain the flexibility to pick and choose its invitees.

Still: It's progress. You love to see it.

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...

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For Sale: Patrick Cantlay. At the start of the new year, Cantlay revealed that he was looking for both a new club deal and an apparel partner. The former is crucially important, of course: Cantlay has exclusively played Titleist clubs in his career, and he was unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension. But the plan, for now, is that Cantlay will continue to use the same equipment while he tries out other manufacturers. In recent years the free-agent route worked particularly well for Brooks Koepka; it’s unlikely, after all, that a single manufacturer makes the best equipment from driver through the putter. Cantlay tied for 16th in his first start since October.

More of That, Please: Commercial-free final hour. The closing stretch at the Sentry was without commercial interruption, which paid off in a big way given the drama that unfolded. Rahm's charge and Morikawa's slide made for riveting TV, made even more compelling with them constantly on the screen. Loved it. And need more of it.

Awwwwwkward: Saudi International releases. Colleague Rex Hoggard reported that, according to a Tour official, a “few” unnamed Tour members were granted conflicting-event releases to play the Asian Tour’s Saudi International early next month. That’s interesting for a few reasons: It’s long been Tour policy to allow such releases, and denying them now, in the middle of an antitrust lawsuit, would be a noteworthy reversal. But it’s a particularly bold move for those yet-to-be-named Tour members, who would essentially be signaling to the Tour (and everyone else) that they can be courted by the Saudis. The event once again conflicts with the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which immediately precedes two designated events, the Phoenix Open and Genesis Invitational.

Name Change Needed: Tournament of Champions. With the Tour’s wise decision to add Tour Championship qualifiers who wouldn’t otherwise be eligible, it’s no longer a winners-only Tournament of Champions – and that’s OK! With the increase in prize money ($2.7M to the winner) the vibe in Maui has changed in recent years, with guys no longer content just to get a family vacation out of the trip. Instead, they’re treating the elevated … err, designated … event as if it were any other time on the calendar. As they should.

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Where’s the Rest of Him?: Keegan Bradley. Kudos to Bradley, the Zozo champion who got started on his New Year’s resolution early by dropping about 30 pounds in five months. The meat-rich diet has him down to a fighting weight of 190 pounds, and his improved wellness has him body feeling like he did when he first came out on Tour.

More Tumult: Another LIV executive departs. Matt Goodman, who was the LIV president of franchises, has also left the upstart league, following in the footsteps of chief operating officer Atul Khosla, who resigned at the end of the inaugural season. It’s obvious that Khosla’s exit has set back LIV’s progress, at least to some extent: LIV hasn’t released its 14-event worldwide schedule or finalized its 2023 roster, despite saying it would do so more than a month ago, and there has yet to be a domestic TV partner announced. LIV begins its season in mid-February.

Just Log Off: J.J. Spaun’s wardrobe. Sporting an untucked, button-down shirt on Maui, Spaun was asked about some of the “outrage” that his outfit had created online – a reminder that social media is a dark, soulless echo chamber and in no ways an accurate representation of the world at large. So, do you, J.J. – the look was perfect. He tied for fifth, too.

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Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. Few have dominated Kapalua in recent years quite like JT, whose sparkling record on the Plantation Course included two wins. He couldn’t blame rust – he was everywhere in the month of December, from the Hero to The Match to the PNC – but he was off-kilter in the lid-lifter, failing to break 70 in three of the four rounds and settling for a tie for a career-worst 25th. Sigh.