Cal Golf: Collin Morikawa Set to Chase the One Prize That Has Eluded Him

Cal senior and his teammates begin play Monday in the NCAA regionals, pursuing a berth in the national championships

Collin Morikawa has played golf in France and Ireland. He has led U.S. teams to victory in international competition. He was the No. 1-ranked amateur player in the world a year ago, and resides at No. 3 in those ratings right now.

He is weeks away from embarking on a professional career.

On Monday at Myrtle Beach, S.C., Morikawa will begin three days of golf as meaningful as anything he has yet encountered.

Morikawa and his Cal teammates will play in the NCAA regionals, striving for a top-five finish to earn a spot in the collegiate national tournament that has eluded them since 2016.

“This tournament is what matters. I haven’t been to nationals for three years now and it’s something you want as a team,” said Morikawa, who played at the NCAA tournament as a freshman. “We have the team to win it all.”

-- Morikawa discusses how he deals with pressure.

The 22-year-old from the affluent Los Angeles County community of La Canada Flintridge has a sparkling resume. He is coming off a four-stroke victory in the Pac-12 Conference tournament last month and has finished seventh place or better in all 10 of his stroke-play events this season.

He is a finalist for the Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan awards, given to the nation’s top collegiate golfer, and his 2018-19 stroke average of 68.39 is better than the NCAA season record and just 0.03 behind national leader Matthew Wolff of Oklahoma State.

Morikawa is articulate and smart (soon to graduate from the Haas School of Business), measured but personable. Last week, he was presented the Jake Gimbel Award, established in the 1930's to recognize a graduating male Cal student-athlete for excellence in attitude towards athletics and academics.

“He’s too good to be true,” Cal coach Walter Chun said. “In the time I've known him, ever since the recruiting days, I’ve hardly ever seen a bad side of him. Only when he’s missing putts.”

Photo by Todd Drexler

But there is one vacant line on his college golfing resume: Success at the NCAA championships.

Morikawa doesn’t refer to the event as a personal destination. He relishes being part of a team, and talks about what it would mean for the Bears to get there after falling short a year ago by finishing 10th at the Raleigh, N.C. regionals.

Chun believes that for all of Morikawa’s successes — including helping the U.S. team to victory the past two summers at the Palmer Cup — that disappointments will fuel the Bears’ star this week.

“I know there’s going to be pressure on Collin but Collin’s faced a lot of adversity already. He’s faced tremendous disappointments. I know he’s going to be motivated by it.

“Collin is not afraid to succeed and he’s not afraid to fail.”

Morikawa carefully considers his coach’s choice of words and puts his own signature on the thought.

“Obviously, we’re going to have a lot of motivation from a year ago and regionals, if that’s what he means,” Morikawa said. “Disappointment doesn’t sound right … I can’t put a word to it. It is very tough for a team to go through that. That’s golf.

“You’re going to play bad some days. That’s why you practice to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Morikawa stresses that the Bears haven’t been swimming in self-pity since the 2018 regionals.

“You can’t make what happened a year ago keep affecting us,” he said. “We’ve done a good job of using it this year to keep pushing us harder.”

This seems to be how Morikawa takes on most things. Chun says his preparation is unmatched, and that brings him calm and confidence.

“Even when we have our team meetings, he doesn’t need the yardage book,” Chun said. “He kind of has a photographic memory. He remembers the holes: The pins going to be tucked on the right, the best angle is from the left. It’s routine for him to regurgitate this stuff.”

Photo by Marcus Edwards

Even while being recruited as a top high school prospect, Morikawa used a methodical approach that allowed him to focus on what mattered.

Chun, who was an assistant to Steve Desimone at the time, recalls that Morikawa basically shut down his recruitment for six months during his junior year at La Canada High. Coaches couldn’t call or text recruits at that time, only communicate through email. And Morikawa went silent until resurfacing in April.

“I just asked Collin, `I haven’t heard from you in six months. Why should I keep recruiting you?’ He was honest. He said, `I needed space. I hope you understand.’

“Recruiting is like a bad girlfriend: You get sucked in and it’s hard to get out,” Chun said. “He’s alway been a confident young man, always believed the way he was doing things was the right way.”

Morikawa thinks a lot of athletes rush the process and commit to a school merely to gain security. “I never want to make a decision and not be 100 percent with it,” he said.

His choice, ultimately, was Cal, partly because of the 2013 team that featured first-team All-Americans Max Homa, Michael Kim and Michael Weaver and assembled one of the greatest seasons in college history before being upset in match play by Illinois in the national semifinals.

The Bears are seeded No. 2 at Myrtle Beach, behind Wake Forest. They must finish among the top five in the 14-team field to advance to the NCAA championships, May 24-29 at Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The top individual finisher from a school not among the five team qualifiers also earns a berth in the national tournament.

Morikawa, who will begin his professional career whenever his college season ends, believes this team can go where the 2013 squad went, and perhaps beyond.

“We don’t lack that talent. We just need to put everything out there at the right time, catch fire at the right time. And just enjoy it.”

Collin Morikawa’s 2018-19 finishes in stroke-play tournaments:

2nd at Fighting Illini Invitational, Sept. 14-16 at Olympia Fields, IL

2nd at Alister MacKenzie Invitational, Oct. 8-9 at Fairfax, CA

5th (tied) at Tavistock Collegiate Invitational, Oct. 21-23 at Windermere, FL

3rd at Ka’anapali Classic Collegiate Invitational, Nov. 2-4 at Lahaina, HI

1st at The Farms Invitational, Feb. 11-12 at Rancho Santa Fe, CA

3rd at Southwestern Invitational, Feb. 25-26 at Westlake Village, CA

4th (tied) at Southern Highlands Collegiate, March 3-5 at Las Vegas, NV

3rd (tied) at The Goodwin, March 28-30 at Stanford

7th (tied) at Western Intercollegiate, April 15-17 at Santa Cruz, CA

1st at Pac-12 Championships, April 22-24 at Eugene, OR