A Steady Rise

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As Collin Morikawa’s career progresses, he’s developed the cool hand of a real seasoned pro.

Collin Morikawa watches his tee shot during the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in February. (JUN NAGATA/Rafu Shimpo)

By CHRIS KOMAI

Clearly, Collin Morikawa was ready.

After graduating with a business administration degree from the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley in the late spring of 2019, Morikawa began his career on the PGA Tour in a most impressive fashion. Using sponsor exemptions to enter a string of professional tournaments, Collin tied for second with Bryson DeChambeau at the 3M Open (only his fourth career start), tied for fourth in the John Deere Classic, and won the Barracuda Championship in Reno.

That triumph in only his eighth career start changed Morikawa’s career path. The victory gave him PGA Tour membership through the 2020-2021 season, meaning he would not need to seek more sponsor exemptions or to play in qualifying events to participate in the regular tour events.

It also gave him a spot in the FedEx Cup Playoffs that fall, where he advanced to the BMW Championships. By the end of July, Collin had earned over $1.6 million, which probably meant he could put his business degree into practice.

Morikawa just lost a play-off to Daniel Berger at the Charles Schwab Challenge held at the Colonial Country Country in Fort Worth, Texas, in the first PGA Tour event since the COVID-19 outbreak stopped competition. Collin missed a short putt in the play-off, which cost him the tournament and could leave a scar. But, Morikawa’s mental approach is one of his strengths and his previous successes provide him with a solid foundation.

When reviewing his quick rise on the PGA Tour, Morikawa admitted it was “amazing.” But, tellingly, he didn’t feel it was a surprise. That’s because in his four years at Cal, Collin was a three-time All-American and four-time All-Pac 12 golfer. He was named the 2018 Golfweek Men’s National Player of the Year, the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2019, and reached the No. 1 position in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.

Interviewed by Sports Illustrated.com before his victory in Reno, he was asked if he thought he could win on the PGA Tour. “Absolutely,” he replied. “I one hundred percent believe I can. I don’t know if other people do but I believe I can. I think if I put together four straight days of good golf, I definitely think I can win. I know I can shoot low scores out here. I’m very confident. If you can’t believe in yourself, you’re already five steps behind and in a big hole.”

Soon after that interview, Morikawa won the Barracuda Championship, which was played under the modified Stableford system. Instead of posting gross scores, players earn points for birdies (2) and eagles (5) and are penalized for bogeys (-1) and double bogeys (-3). Pars earn zero points. The system encourages aggressive play and Collin demonstrated that when he birdied four out of the last five holes to end up with a total of 47 points. He had only three bogeys in the tournament and won by three points.

Despite his confident attitude, Morikawa maintains a sense of humility, according to his coaches, teammates and family. The oldest son of Debbie and Blaine Morikawa of La Cañada, Collin is quick to credit his parents as being “the biggest support system I have. They are the most supportive people. They helped to create my path to succeed.”

In fact, it was his father who introduced Collin to golf when he was 8 years old. Collin recalled taking part in a Nike Golf Camp at the Scholl Canyon Golf Course in Glendale. Blaine recognized his son had an aptitude for golf and approached the local teaching professional, Rick Sessinghaus.

“When I saw him swing,” Sessinghaus recalled, “he had a very natural swing and was clearly poised beyond his years.”

Fortunately for Collin, Sessinghaus was more than just a swing coach. Rick played collegiately at Cal State Northridge, but soon realized he wasn’t good enough to play on the PGA Tour. His own challenges with golf made him want to explore the mental and emotional skills required to excel at professional sports. Having already acquired his bachelor’s degree in speech communications, Rick went back to school and earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in applied sports psychology. Ultimately, Sessinghaus developed his PERFORM system, which can be used in sports, business and life.

Besides working on Collin’s swing, Sessinghaus helped to develop Morikawa’s mental game by building his confidence, strengthening his emotional resiliency and training him to embrace the pressure during competition. “Since I started working with Collin at the age of 8 years old,” Rick explained, “I believe I helped cultivate an already positive mindset toward golf. I’m a big believer in learning from every round. Collin embraced that attitude. He has a strong work ethic, bounces back after adversity, and just loves the game of golf. He has been a pleasure to coach.”

Morikawa grew to his five-foot, nine-inch height, which enabled him to generate enough swing speed to compete against top competition. His breakthrough moment occurred in 2013 at the Western Junior Championship at the Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis. Having turned 16, Collin was not a highly ranked junior, but he managed to shoot four rounds in the 60s and gained instant credibility.

“When I won the Western Junior Open in 2013, it kind of changed the entire landscape of how my golf game was going,” Morikawa told the Daily Cal newspaper. “It put me on a bigger stage, got my name out there, helped my ranking rise.”

Sessinghaus did not have to build a fire in Collin to want to get better nor to push him to prioritize golf over other activities. He quit playing other sports when he was 12 (he loved baseball) and put in the work with Sessinghaus to improve his technique and strategies. “It was hard,” Collin noted, “but I know I needed and wanted to play golf.”

To advance to the next level, Morikawa had to choose which college to attend. It came down to UCLA, USC, Stanford and Cal. It wasn’t easy, especially since his mother went to USC, but Collin chose Cal. “I knew academics were important,” he said. Cal has one of the top five business schools in the country and also a top collegiate golf program.

Recruited by head coach Steve Desimone (who was then succeeded by Walter Chun), Morikawa demonstrated an organized approach to his collegiate life. “He came to school with a plan,” Desimone revealed. “It’s tough to graduate anywhere in four years when you’re playing golf, let alone our (Haas) business school.”

What made Morikawa’s original plan difficult to maintain was his growing success in amateur golf. In his sophomore year, he won his first NCAA tournament, the ASU Thunderbird Invitational, and saw his national ranking climb to No. 4. He won three more tournaments in his junior year and reached the No. 1 ranking in the country.

Things could have changed completely when Morikawa, at age 19, ended up in a play-off with professionals J.J. Spaun and Ollie Schniederjans for the title of the Air Capital Classic on the Web.com Tour in 2016. “Who knows what could’ve happened if I’d won?” Collin mused.

“Agents started contacting him during his sophomore year,” Sessinghaus revealed. “They wanted him to quit school and turn pro.”

But Morikawa stuck to his plan, partly to get his degree and partly in hopes that he could play on a national championship team. The Bears’ only men’s golf championship was in 2004, although they have had talented teams since. That dream would remain unfulfilled, but Collin has no regrets. “I knew what I wanted to do,” he emphasized. “I learned so much just playing golf and meeting so many new people at Cal, just friends and support groups that I’ll just have forever.”

Also, Collin was able to take advantage of his top amateur ranking to play for the U.S. in the prestigious Walker Cup against Great Britain and Ireland at the Los Angeles Country Club in 2017. Collin went 4-0 and said, “Representing your country is the biggest honor you can have. We don’t get that opportunity too often, so when it does come around, it’s something that you’ve really got to take in and enjoy.”

That same year, Morikawa was invited to participate in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla. After shooting par in the first round, he struggled to make the cut, but parred his final three holes. He finished at two-over-par and tied for 64th place, but the experience made him more confident that he could compete as a professional.

Having his academics under control, Collin spent much of his senior year in preparation for his golf career. Maybe it was because he majored in business that he knew he had to put in a lot of work off the course to acquire the opportunities to succeed at professional golf.

First, it is not inexpensive to pursue a pro career, given the costs of hiring a caddy, travel and accommodations, so he pursued support from companies where he already used their products, like Adidas and TaylorMade. Second, he began writing letters to every PGA tournament to request sponsor exemptions so that he wouldn’t be forced to qualify to play.

Asked if he had a back-up plan in case none of this worked, Collin said that his Plan B was to play golf somewhere else. It could have been on the Korn Ferry Tour (the successor to the Web.com tour) or on the MacKenzie Tour in Canada or overseas, grinding out scores and working to get better. “I dreamed of doing this forever,” he explained.

But, having prepared so well and with his positive mental approach, Morikawa immediately played at a high and steady level from the start. Nothing of this was guaranteed. Sessinghaus noted that many top-ranked amateurs initially struggle in their first year as pros and have a tough time regaining their confidence. Collin’s victory at the Barracuda along with his remarkable consistency (as of this writing, he has yet to miss a cut) have provided a strong foundation for his career.

Which is not say that he doesn’t struggle. While he noted the strength of his game is his iron play (at the Safeway Open, where he tied for 10th, Collin made seven birdies by hitting his approach shots to within 10 feet and shot a 64), he lamented his inconsistency on the greens. “Putting has held me back,” he observed.

One manifestation of his struggles is his constant switching of putters. Sessinghaus once observed, “Collin still goes through a lot of putters. We’ll laugh about it. He’ll win and I’ll say, ‘Which putter was it today?’”

Besides Sessinghaus, Morikawa relies on his caddy, J.J. Jakovec, who used to loop for Ryan Moore. Jakovec won two individual Division II national championships at Chico State, but couldn’t get through qualifying school and became a caddy. He reached out to Morikawa when Collin was turning pro. They partnered together at the U.S. Open sectional qualifying tournament in Ohio. Morikawa qualified for the U.S. Open and they have been a team ever since.

Because of Jakovec’s experience on the tour, he has been invaluable since Collin has never played most of the courses on tour. Off the course, Morikawa is represented by Excel Sports Management and goes to the Urban Golf Performance outlets to work on his golf fitness.

His family, girlfriend Katherine Zhu and friends round out Collin’s social support group. Zhu, who played golf at Pepperdine University, travels with Collin on the tour. His parents, his brother Garrett, 16, (who plays soccer and not golf) and Kat were all on hand in Reno when he won.

“It was very cool to see them there,” Morikawa remembered. But he added that he had to maintain his focus on golf and not them.

Sessinghaus noted that Collin’s parents were great for their son’s development. “I don’t think Blaine even plays golf,” Rick said. “But he came to every lesson and just watched and learned. Then he started caddying for Collin. He’s the perfect golf parent.”

Last year, Collin moved into a house in the Las Vegas area, where a number of other young professional golfers like Maverick McNealy and Kurt Kitayama live. “We have a group of friends there,” Morikawa explained.

If there is one thing that Collin is passionate about away from golf, it’s food. Since his father is Japanese American from Hawaii and his mother is Chinese American from Southern California, he described himself as an “L.A. culture guy.” His family would regularly go to either Chinatown or Little Tokyo to dine. While still in college, he went with his family on a 10-day tour of Japan, where he was exposed to the wonderful variety of Japanese food.

Asked about his experiences playing golf in Japan as a professional last year, Collin remarked, “I was in love (with the food).” He and Kat created a video in Hawaii as they ate their way around Honolulu, consuming poke at Ono Seafood and Portuguese donuts at Leonard’s. His love of food has literally left its mark on his golf clubs as he had his wedges inscribed with his favorite breakfast meals such as “Eggs Benedict” (56 degree) and “Bacon Hash Browns Sourdough Toast” (56 degree).

Morikawa has embodied one definition of success in which preparation connects with opportunity. While other 23-year-olds might relax after such a remarkable beginning to a professional golf career, Collin is still driven to improve and achieve. His overriding goal is “being the best — that’s what ultimately drives me,” he explained. “Whether or not I succeed, it doesn’t give me negative thoughts; it just pushes me to succeed.”

Collin Morikawa is clearly hungry for more.

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