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It’s With Two L’s

The 102nd edition of golf’s oldest professional Major Championship would prove to be a historic four days of golf. The venue was at the TPC at Harding Park in San Francisco, (one of only a handful of public courses that have hosted a Major) and the field was comprised of 95 of the world’s top 100 players.

They would all be tested on the severe 7,251-yard, par-70 layout in search of winning the year’s first Major and the Wannamaker Trophy that comes with it. Harding Park is a notorious “first shot” course, meaning that people who drive the ball well and keep their shots in the fairway have the best shot of winning.    

The pre-tournament favorite was world #1 and 2017 PGA winner, Justin Thomas, who just claimed his 13th PGA Tour win last week (only the third youngest player in history behind Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus to win so many events by their 27th birthday) at the WGC FedEx St. Jude Classic, but he was not a serious contender after two back-9 double bogies on Day 1.

A resurgent Jason Day and a player with a different comeback story Brendon Todd, were the co-leaders after the first round with superb 5-under 65’s that saw them one shot clear off an incredible 9 players who shot 66.

Day was the dominant player in the world in 2015-17 before a lapse over the last two years but the 32-year-old Australian has shown really good form in the past month with 3 consecutive Top 10 finishes.

35-year old Carolinian Todd is a 3-time winner on Tour but almost quit the game two years ago because of the “swing-yips”. His confidence had been so badly eroded that he had fallen outside the World rankings Top 2,000 players and couldn’t hit a fairway to save his life. His story is a lesson for all of us.   

That cluster included Major winners, Justin Rose, Zach Johnson, Martin Kaymer and two-time defending Champion, Brooks Koepka who was looking to win a record third consecutive PGA Championship. They were joined by Americans Xander Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler, Bud Cauley, Brendan Steele and Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera.

Eight players at 3-under were Americans Tony Finau (who we think is due to breakout into the elite group of players one day soon), Gary Woodland, Daniel Berger, Kevin Kisner, JT Potson, Sweden’s Alex Noren, England’s Tom Lewis and China’s Li Haotong.

As shot behind them in another large group were Tiger Woods, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau. 

But after the second round the least likely of the constellation of the above players would be the one with the lead. 25-year old Li played flawlessly and recorded 5-under 65 that left him two shots clear of Day, Berger, Koepka, Rose, Lorenzo-Vera and England’s Tommy Fleetwood who carded the day’s best round, a 6-under 64.        

Li is largely an unknown entity in the United States but he has been quietly building a resume in Europe for the past few years. Li was the first Chinese player to qualify for and play on the web.com Tour in 2015 and has won twice on the European Tour. He also became the first player from his country to play in the President’s Cup when he was a member of the losing team in 2019.

Todd, American Cameron Champ and England’s Paul Casey were in a tie for 8th at 5-under one ahead of Schauffele, Noren, US star Dustin Johnson, Austrian Bernd Wiesberger and journeyman American Lanto Griffin at 4-under.    

79 players made the cut which was at 1-over so all those players were within 9 shots of the lead and two red hot rounds could change things dramatically for anyone who survived to the weekend. 

DeChambeau was one of those players who made a big move on Saturday’s moving day with a 4-under 66 that would leave him in a tie with five other players at 6-under. That group also included Day, Rose, Fleetwood, Berger and Finau.

Rising American star, 23-year old Collin Morikawa’s 5-under 65 saw him climb 40 places to be with Casey and Koepka at 7-under in a tie for 4th heading into Sunday. Scheffler matched Morikawa’s 65 and vaulted into a tie for second with Champ at 8-under but they were all chasing the new leader, Dustin Johnson, whose own 65 saw him one clear at 9-under. 

Johnson was the #1 ranked player in the world for 64 weeks in 2017-2018 and the 36-year old superstar has racked up 21 wins to date in his PGA Tour career. He has always been one of the premier ball strikers on Tour but his putting on occasion hasn’t been a match. On Saturday Johnsons’ putter was his best club and when he plays like that, he is almost impossible to beat.    

Not surprisingly Li wilted on Saturday under the spotlight of the lead and carded a 3-over 73 that left him still within striking distance at 5-under with 4 other players.   

As the players made the turn going into Sunday’s final round there were a bevy of contenders still in the hunt. Johnson had played really well to be at 10-under and in the lead but his host of pursuers would soon catch up with him.

The first of those was Finau whose birdie on the 12th hole would tie him for the lead with Johnson. Casey too joined the crowd at 10-under with DeChambeau and Day among the players one back at 9-under.  But then one player emerged from the pack.     

Morikawa birdied the 13th hole to take sole possession of the lead at 11-under before he made a majestic eagle 2 on the 16th hole to give him a 2-shot advantage over Casey. When he made two closing pars, he would record a flawless 6-under 64 that will go down as one of the best finishes in Major Championship golf. 

Johnson and Casey finished in a tie for second at 11-under one ahead of Day, DeChambeau and Finau whose final round 66’s would have been good enough to make them winners in any other year. 

The 23-year old Morikawa has made a stunning but not unexpected rise to the pinnacle of golf. He made his professional debut last year in July at the RBC Championship and had earned his Tour card just a few months later (a very hard thing to do) by the end of Fall. His first win was at the Barracuda Championship in October 2019, and his second win was last month when he bested Justin Thomas in a playoff at the Workday Charity Open.

He is a prodigious talent in an age of unheard of, and not yet seen, orchestra of brilliance.

Whose conductor today was Morikawa.