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Paradise Lost

Jon Rahm roared past a shaky Collin Morikawa to win the Tournament of Champions and reassert his standing in the game

By Alan Shipnuck

KAPALUA, Maui—Come to Hawaii and relax, they said. It will be fun, they said. For the first 67 holes of the Tournament of Champions, Collin Morikawa was enjoying the perfect working vacation. Bogey-free and carefree, Morikawa was on the verge of ending an 18-month victory drought and proving he belonged at a tournament that used to be just for winners in the preceding season. (In the PGA Tour’s new everyone-gets-a-participation-trophy era, Morikawa secured an invite under revised criteria that includes non-winners who make it to the Tour Championship.) But as quickly as the tropical winds shift, the momentum of the final round flipped on Morikawa. 

While he was making seven straight pars in the middle of his round, Jon Rahm began tearing up the Plantation Course. Rahm had been nine strokes behind Morikawa after bogeying the 1st hole, but he hung around with a burst of birdies to close the front nine. On the 412-yard 12th hole, Rahm drove it 410 yards and got up-and-down for birdie. Cool, but no one really noticed because he was still five strokes back. On 13 he rolled in a 12-footer; everyone but Rahm still believed he was playing for second place. “I realized after the birdie on 13 that I had a bit of a chance,” he said, but that seemed like wishful thinking. On the drivable par-4 14th his ball stopped just short of the green, and Rahm, a big man with soft hands, nearly jarred the pitch. Three back. The plot thickened.

At 25 and already with two major championship victories, Morikawa is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. But he battled his swing throughout 2022 and his short game floundered, as he finished the season 152nd in strokes gained around the green and 131st in putting. Notable for his lack of an entourage, Morikawa hired a putting coach (Stephen Sweeney) and a short-game guru (Parker McLaughlin). He looked flawless through 54 holes as he built a six-stroke lead. That scenario always evokes Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters, but a year ago at the World Challenge, Morikawa took a five-stroke lead into the final round, only to become undone with a 76 that left a bruise. “It’s never easy to protect a big lead, especially on a course where everyone is making birdies,” says Matt Fitzpatrick, Morikawa’s Sunday playing partner at Kapalua. “He didn’t hit any really bad shots, it’s just small margins out there.”

In fact, Morikawa birdied three of his first six holes and would have had a fourth if not for a three-putt from 38 feet at the par-5 5th. After the run of pars, he pushed his tee shot at the par-4 14th ever so slightly and his ball trickled into the greenside bunker. Sweating profusely on a hot, windless day, he trudged toward the green. Up ahead, on the par-5 15th, Rahm ripped two perfect shots, and considering how he stalked his 12-footer for eagle you just knew he was going to make it. He arrived at Kapalua having won two of his previous three starts and feeling frisky as he seeks to reclaim his standing in the game after a relatively quiet 2022. “In my mind, I feel like since August I’ve been the best player in the world,” Rahm says matter-of-factly. 

Morikawa brained his sand shot over the green and looked timid in missing the ensuing 10-foot par putt. Rahm brushed in his eagle. Bang-bang, tie ballgame. On the 15th hole Morikawa duffed a chip and then left himself an 8-footer to save a messy par. “Didn’t see the leaderboard until I got on the green and you realize I’m putting for par to stay tied for the lead,” he said. “At that point it’s a little different feeling than what you had early on.” He missed the putt, and after he made a 5 at the 16th for his third consecutive bogey, it was all over but the shouting.

Rahm’s closing 63 pushed his winning score to 27 under. Last year he went 33 deep but got pipped by Cam Smith’s record performance. Surely Rahm could not have been too upset to lose given his stellar play? “Oh no, he was very grumpy about it,” says his wife, Kelley. “He’s always grumpy when he doesn’t win. Sometimes he’s grumpy even when he wins! I could have done this better, I should have done that better.”

It is the raw emotion that makes tournament golf such compelling theater. A month ago Morikawa married his college sweetheart, Katherine Zhu. After Sunday’s denouement, she was dabbing at her eyes. When her new hubby was asked what he was feeling he said, “Sadness. I don’t know. It sucks. You work so hard and you give yourself these opportunities and just bad timing on bad shots and it kind of added up really quickly.”

Paradise

After the wrenching events of Sunday afternoon, Rahm was ushered upstairs in the Kapalua clubhouse for a private gathering with the host sponsor, Sentry. A nosy reporter who sneaked in found an unobtrusive spot in the back of the room, near the tables of food. (The sashimi was to die for.) Nursing a piña colada, Rahm took questions from PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who is not exactly an expert interrogator. (Almost every query began, “Talk about…”) In his courtly English, Rahm spoke about his dedication to Kelley and his two young sons and his desire to be the best person he can be. It sounds corny, but the adoring crowd spooned it up. Rahm may be a golfing gentleman, but the fire inside betrayed him when he was asked if he felt any empathy for Morikawa. “I don’t know how to answer that without sounding very rude,” he said. “As a competitor, no, I want to win. That’s all I can tell you.”

Morikawa, meanwhile, was exceedingly gracious in defeat, offering polished sound bites and signing endless autographs while wearing a friendship lei that had been presented to him coming off the 18th green. But when the cameras clicked off and the fans drifted away, the magnitude of the defeat seemed to hit him. After decompressing in the locker room for a bit, he slowly made his way out of the clubhouse looking uncharacteristically disheveled in flip-flops and with his shirt untucked. The lei had been discarded, one more bit of paradise lost.

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1 thought on “Paradise Lost”

  1. PGHS ’22 grad and Breakers’ Basketball Defensive Player of the Year Noah Capili is attending UH if you feel like a hardcourt run between important reporting duties and another pina colada. He is also an expert on shave ice, just sayin’.
    Happy healthy new year!

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