KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Last August, at age 23, Collin Morikawa solved golf. He won the PGA Championship at Harding Park with a nerveless bogey-free 64 in the final round, a performance that was not just an achievement but an announcement: This was a guy to watch for the next 15 years, maybe the guy to watch. You know, like Rory McIlroy once was.
Morikawa is looking to repeat this week, and McIlroy is looking for something else. McIlroy has not won a major since 2014, an astounding stretch. From 2011 to ’14, when he was the PGA Tour’s version of a wee lad, McIlroy won four majors. He has played some exceptional golf since then. He has not recaptured that feeling he had here at the Ocean Course in 2012, that complete trust in himself to hit the shot he needed to hit when he needed to hit it.
“Some weeks, you just have a good feeling,” McIlroy said this week. “Some weeks, you just sort of go with it, and it was one of those weeks that it felt good.”
That feeling is, perhaps, the most elusive quality in golf, and the one that can define elite golfers. Dustin Johnson is a better player than Brooks Koepka, but Koepka has been better at summoning that feeling. It requires more than skill, power or touch. It comes from a combination of confidence and calmness. And as much as golfers talk about learning experiences, that feeling can come easier when they haven’t had those experiences—when they don’t know what they don’t know.
That was Morikawa last summer. He had just arrived on tour a year earlier but already had a reputation for seizing the moment. In the final round, with the leaderboard filled with big names, Morikawa was the one who executed shot after shot. He looked like he could do this 10 more times, but the game had not really tortured him yet. It will, and then Morikawa will discover that while finding that feeling is hard, finding it again is just as tough.
That is McIlroy’s story. He won his first major at the 2011 U.S. Open, when he had just thrown away the Masters but was young enough to expect to have a couple dozen more chances. He won the PGA here the next year, and the British and PGA in 2014, dominant performances that seemed to show he was Tiger Woods’s successor but look different in retrospect. Woods had an almost supernatural ability to execute under pressure and, especially, make clutch putts. McIlroy won so easily, he didn’t have to do that. But golf never stays easy for long.
McIlroy’s major-less streak is confounding partly because of how well he has played in that time. Since that 2014 PGA, he has won a Players Championship, a PGA Tour Player of the Year award and two FedEx Cups. But he has not put together a week at a major that was anything like the ones when he was a young pro, and the longer the drought lasts, the further away that feeling seems.
“It’s nine years ago,” McIlroy said of his 2012 PGA win. “It seems longer. It seems like there’s been a lot of time that’s passed, and I feel like I’m a different person and a different player … I played great here last time, obviously, and won my first PGA and my second major, but just because I did that doesn’t mean that I’m going to find it any easier this week than anyone else. It’s a really tough test, especially when the wind is blowing like this. Those last few holes out there are brutal.”
The last few holes, though, might play in his favor. McIlroy struggled recently when he chased speed and his swing got out of whack, but he started working with swing coach Pete Cowen and returned to form. That was a short-term funk. His biggest long-term problem is wedge play, and the finish at the Ocean Course requires a lot of longer irons, which could help him.
Four majors is a big number for a career; Phil Mickelson has won five, and Ernie Els won four. But anybody paying attention expects McIlroy to win more. He just turned 32, he is a prodigious talent, and he is still the favorite to finish as the most accomplished of his generation. Someday—perhaps this week—McIlroy will find a way to play like Morikawa did last summer. And someday, Morikawa will learn just how rare that really is.
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