- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Like so many other courses Collin Morikawa has played since turning professional 17 months ago, this is all new to him.

When he tees off Thursday morning at Augusta National Golf Club, it will be with three days of practice on the course, three days in which he’ll attempt to familiarize himself to all the intricacies involved. He’ll also be surrounded by some of golf’s best players — he plays Thursday with Adam Scott, and he’s sandwiched between groups that include Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas.

And yet, at least from his outward projection, he’s handling his first Masters the way he handles any other round of golf.

“I’m not afraid of any course out here,” the 23-year-old Morikawa said. “I feel like my game, whatever you guys deem it to be or whatever I believe it is, I can go out and dissect a course and figure out what my best opportunity is to shoot a good score. I wouldn’t say I focus more on certain courses than others, because I’m coming out every week, Monday through Wednesday, really trying to figure out by Thursday morning, I’m ready to play golf.”

So far, the strategy has seemed to work.

After graduating from California, Morikawa began his career with 22 made cuts — the longest streak since Tiger Woods opened his career with 25. Morikawa won the PGA Championship in August, securing his first major in only his second major appearance. He’s part of a young crop of golfers who could become the next core group of the sport.

And he can further cement his rising reputation this week at Augusta, navigating the course without galleries full of spectators and with fall colors in the trees. In some ways, after taking in the course during a practice round Monday, those unusual circumstances might aid Morikawa.

“I saw the course for what it is,” Morikawa said, “and I think that’s going to be really beneficial — not just for this year, but for years forward. Yes, sidelines might change with grandstands, but to see it for what it is? Very, very helpful.”

Morikawa is here after a blistering start to his professional career. He debuted last summer at the RBC Canadian Open and tied for 14th, then made the cut at the U.S. Open and Travelers Championship. He put together top-five finishes at the 3M Open and John Deere Classic in consecutive weeks, then broke through for his first win at the Barracuda Championship in July 2019.

At 23, he became the third youngest golfer to win the PGA Championship, shooting a 13-under par in August.

“Just a little busier lifestyle,” Morikawa said when asked what’s changed since becoming a major winner. “I don’t think I get recognized, especially with the mask, I don’t get recognized anywhere. And I love that.”

As Morikawa made the jump from amateur to professional, it wasn’t the courses that intimidated him at all. He’d figure them out. Instead, it was the players he golfed with who were somewhat daunting, the big names he’d watched growing up and now suddenly found himself rubbing shoulders with.

He’s shaken that feeling, though. He’s played rounds with Woods, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson. He beat Thomas in a playoff at the Workday Charity Open in July. Those experiences have made him comfortable enough to focus on his own game, even when surrounded by stars.

“In the few major starts that I’ve had — yes, they are few majors — but I’ve played with all these guys, I’ve seen them every single week,” Morikawa said. “So that just makes it easier for me to come out here like it’s any other event.”

Which, of course, it’s not. It’s the Masters at Augusta, even if it’s in November with no fans lining the fairways.

When Morikawa played a round Monday, he did so with Justin Rose. And when the pairing reached the crest on the 11th hole, with Amen Corner and the 12th hole in view, Rose described his first experience playing at Augusta and seeing that iconic sight.

The story made Morikawa smile. But for the time being, he’s not allowing himself to be swept away by the moment, or star-struck by the course. He has other tasks in the forefront of his mind, cramming in as much prep as he can ahead of his first Masters appearance.

If all goes well, he’ll find time for the sentimentality later.

“Yes, I’m trying to enjoy it, but I’m trying to focus,” Morikawa said. “I’ll enjoy it at the end of the week, hopefully.”


• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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