By Meraj Shah
Golf, in the British Isles, is steeped in history and tradition. Are there antiquated and hackneyed elements that could be shed to make the game more accessible and attractive to the younger lot? Undoubtedly so, but there are also time-honoured traditions that imbue the sport with it’s character that ought to be preserved. Nowhere else, I imagine, does elegance and felicity in public oratory carry as much currency as it does in the Royal & Ancient’s windswept realm. Especially so at the annual anointment of the ‘Champion Golfer of the Year,’ at ‘The Open Championship,’—the most hallowed event of the year where the ‘The Claret Jug,’ is presented to the ‘gentleman golfer,’ who’s prevailed over the field, and the notoriously unpredictable vagaries of weather on a stretch of ‘links’ running along the coast.
The purpose behind that long-winded context is to convey, in a sense, what—besides the quality of his game—is expected from the gent who wins the Open Championship. A certain grace and elegance of comportment, sportsmanship of the highest degree, and composed demeanour are certainly expected, and, if, the Champion can underline his triumph by embracing the high idiom of the winner’s speech, well, then, that’s just about as perfect as it can get at The Open Championship.
By that yardstick, Collin Morikawa, with his remarkably well-articulated speech that strove to pivot the spotlight away from his win, achieved something that only one other American winner—Jordan Spieth—has managed to do. The rousing applause after Morikawa’s speech indicated a near consensus amongst those assembled at the presentation area at Royal St. George’s, that this young man, all of 24-years-old, thoroughly deserved the mantle of the Champion Golfer of the Year. It was appropriate that, given the shadow of the dystopia that’s engulfed the world since last year, and which claimed last year’s championship, Morikawa’s effusive nod to the fans—the biggest gallery at a golf tournament since the pandemic broke out—resonated so loudly. As did his wonderfully candid vote of thanks to his family and to his caddy. It happened to be bagman—39-year-old JJ Jakovic’s—birthday, and Morikawa roused the galleries to sing ‘happy birthday.’ I don’t how Jakovic felt, but that reaffirmation of his contribution to his player’s performance, on live television, beaming out to the entire golf-watching world, was unprecedented. With veteran-like-poise on the dais, Morikawa reminded the world that he was merely two years into his professional career by effusively congratulating the winner of the ‘Silver Medal’ —Matthias Schmid—while accepting his award. If sportsmanship, grace and decorum are markers of a champion, then Morikawa nailed them, almost as pure as he hits his irons.
On the business side of Morikawa’s performance, we’ve known for a while now, especially over the past year or so, that this man’s iron play is significantly better than the rest of his peers. In a video that went viral earlier this year, Morikawa’s dispersion with a six-iron was consistently shown to be better than the average pro’s dispersion with a nine-iron. He’s not crazy long off the tee, and relies on his ability to shoot darts on the golf course, and not just with the irons either: who can forget that drive on the Par-4, 16th hole on the final day at the TPC Harding Park, that led to an eagle and set up his win at the PGA Championship. That was a tightly controlled drive, not a bomb, and just underscored Morikawa’s entire approach to the game.
But the most potent arrow in Morikawa’s quiver, as is being much spoken about after all the clinch putts he holed over the weekend at The Open, is his seemingly unflappable temperament. To debut at a Major, play well, be slotted in the final group on the last day, and go up against the best players in the world, is about as hot as the choke-seat can get. To be able to endure that, without losing your gameplan, or your swing, is considered near-impossible for young players. Morikawa won the PGA Championship on debut, and now he’s done it again at The Open.
This performance is arguably even more outstanding given his lack of experience of links golf. How do you land up for your first ever Open Championship, coming off a terrible outing with the putter, and then win the ruddy thing. I’ve got no clue how Morikawa came up with the radical idea of using different grips for putts of varying lengths, but it worked.
What makes links golf and The Open in particular, so riveting to watch, is the role which the weather and the course play: you can’t knock a Portrush or Royal St. George into submission by big hitting; you can’t score at these courses with a bomb-and-gouge approach; and you’re not going to win without accuracy, persistence, innovation, and plain luck. The way golf was originally played, without the need for ludicrously long holes, and brutally unrealistic pin placements. Morikawa’s game is perfect for strategic golf, and it showed. Am I gushing? Absolutely, and I suspect I’m not the only one to feel this way. This kid is special.
One last word for Louis Oosthuizen, who, for the second time in a row just couldn’t rise to the occasion after leading the field at a Major Championship going into the final day. There’s something going on there I can’t put a finger on: Louis’ body language on the final day, both at the US Open, and at the Open Championship was, almost, downbeat.
Next year, the 150th Open Championship will be held at the home of golf—St. Andrews—where Louis won a decade back. If this Open Championship was any indication then we can hope for sunny skies and bigger galleries cheering him on. That Claret Jug, has his name written all over it.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game