Across the ensuing decade came this routine picture: boy, coach and father squished in a cart during weekly lessons at a par-3, nine-hole course with underrated teaching terrain, all while the father suggested nothing, interfered never and studied always – surely among the best sports parents in the checkered history of sports parents. “It’s like he was there as a support system, which I found very refreshing,” the coach said in Los Angeles in May.
On to now, not so long since then, and Collin Morikawa comes to the 150th British Open as the defending champion, his pristine, rugged, closing 66 having clinched matters last year down in England at Royal St. George’s. He comes as a two-time major winner at 25 who won the PGA Championship and British Open on his first tries. He comes as a player whose relationship with pressure has drawn praise from golf intellectuals as the best since Tiger Woods. He comes as a player so good that an “off” year spent flummoxed about the shapes of his shots also includes six top-five finishes, including the Masters and the US Open. All people should have such off years.
“I woke up this morning and looked at it,” he said Monday of the claret jug, which he relinquished by tradition. “The replica is beautiful, but it’s not the same. It really isn’t. It will never be. ”
Then, per methodology: “But I don’t want to dwell in the past.”
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For those aching for some good past-dwelling, this one soars, maybe even as some sort of primer for sports coaches and parents. It’s a testament to three factors in ascending order: a coach so authentic and listenable that you might want him to start coaching your life, clearheaded parents who by all accounts refrained from those typical parent foibles and, most of all, a guy who retains two crucial elements for all pursuits: curiosity and ownership of missteps.
“I think he’s embraced that asking questions is not a weakness,” that coach, Rick Sessinghaus, said of Morikawa. “Some people will be like,‘ If I’m asking questions, people will know [I don’t know]. ‘ No. He’s looking at it as, ‘No, I need to do that.’ ”
Those “some people” include many people, of course, but Sessinghaus has watched Morikawa at the 2021 Ryder Cup as a two-time major winner seeking green-reading advice from Harris English and Fred Couples. He has learned how Morikawa got Bermuda grass chipping pointers in Florida from Paul Azinger – then won the tournament that week. The putting method changed when Morikawa queried 65-year-old, two-time major winner Mark O’Meara in Las Vegas, where Morikawa resides.
Even more so, he’s always watching.
“Yeah, I’m kind of like a silent hunter,” Morikawa said in May. “I don’t really like go and ask and just like chirp and bother these guys. I just kind of watch from afar, which sounds really creepy when I say it. But that’s what I do. Xander Schauffele has moved out to Vegas and we’ve just started playing a bunch together. … You just kind of grasp and you watch how other people do it. It doesn’t have to be Xander. It could be any guy. …
“When you play on team events like Ryder Cup you just watch, and there’s so much knowledge there that if you just sit back and actually listen, you can gain so much and learn so much about what they do and what makes them so great. That doesn’t mean I’m going to copy them, because at the end of the day there’s no way for me to copy what they do because they have completely different feels. What they tell me might not be exactly what they feel. It’s just about piecing a lot of things together and making yourself think in a different way. ”
He won two of the first eight majors he played but will remain forever anti-stagnation. He always did relish the day-to-day learning, such that Sessinghaus came home to his wife and said he found the 12-year-old Morikawa unprecedented: “Here’s a junior who shows up focused, who shows up with a smile, who shows up asking relevant questions, who loves competition, loves to compete, never makes excuses. I’m going, ‘I’ve never been around that whole package.’ I’ve been around competitive. I’ve been around [other attributes]. But not the whole package at that age, and then having supportive parents, I’m going, ‘This is different.’ ”
Blaine and Debbie Morikawa belonged to the blissful set of parents who hadn’t played much golf, hadn’t succumbed to a little knowledge and, best of all, didn’t crave kid medals and the questionable plaudits that can accompany them. “They were always looking at it as:‘ Hey, did you have a good time? Did you enjoy it? ‘ Sessinghaus said. “I never, ever heard them come to me: ‘Hmm. Why hasn’t Collin won a tournament in the last two months? ‘ in juniors. Because this happens all the time. ‘My kid should be beating that person. They’re not as good. ‘ All these expectations, stuff like that. Instead of saying, ‘Well, one, is your son or your daughter even enjoying this game?’ That’s lost on a lot of them. ”
By the time Greg Venger, a two-decade baseball and soccer coach and athletic director in high schools and colleges, spent his one year coaching golf as a fill-in at La Cañada High north of Los Angeles, he got Morikawa’s senior year.
“The demeanor itself, it’s something I haven’t seen from anybody that I’ve coached, or as an AD, I’ve never seen it like that,” Venger said. “I’ve seen kids who come close, but don’t like that. It was different, and the way that people were drawn in was something I’ve never seen before – not like that.
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“And, again, I had a very short period of time to see this, which for me was even more like, ‘Wow, what is going on with this kid?’ And it drew me in. ”
Sessinghaus wants to stress something more: the absence of excuses.
There was that time Morikawa went to a junior event in Florida and played poorly. He returned and quickly said, “‘ Rick, I need to work on flighting my irons, ’” Sessinghaus said. “’The winds were, you know, pretty severe; I wasn’t used to that and I lost control of my ball flight, and we have to work on that. ‘ Again, the opposite of most juniors; they’re going to come to me and say, ‘Yeah, I shot that because it was so windy.’ And they’ll just leave it at that. So they’re going to blame wind for the score. He says: ‘I shot that score. My skills did not match what was needed. We have to go work on it, so next time I’m going to be better. ‘ So now he would prefer a PGA Tour event to be as windy as possible, because he has improved that skill set, because he took ownership for that. You see what I mean? So that’s the difference that makes the difference. ”
The coach calls it “a constant feedback loop of learning,” without judgment for what just happened but with curiosity for how to improve what just happened. “Maybe you end up doing the exact same thing,” Morikawa said, “but you got there in a different path. You got there in a way I never thought about – my hands being here or doing this or lining up the ball. There’s just so many things that I can still improve on as well. ”
When son, coach and father crammed into their cart on their constant loop of learning, they did so at the pretty, unpretentious Chevy Chase Country Club tucked in the hills in Glendale, which Sessinghaus found ideal even with its whole par-3-ness.
Before his doctorate in applied sports psychology, he had played quarterback (in college) and catcher, always concerned with solving situations – third and one, men on first and second. He felt shocked when he learned that golf got coached differently, often by having someone stand at a range and perfect a swing over and over again – from a mat! At Chevy Chase sat a situational wonderland, with a lack of on-course crowdedness allowing for multiple shots without any next group pushing from behind, and with slopes and trees and all whatnot allowing for multiple stances and serial problem solving. From that place grew one of the world’s best short games.
Now they’ve got clippings of Morikawa on the front of the desk in the gift shop, and there’s some palpable energy upgrade when he stops by. And now, around the world at the birthplace of golf, he’s the defending champion at the most important British Open forever. “And it’s very surreal,” Sessinghaus said. “Very, very surreal” – even as it makes a heap of sense.