Relentless Drive: Collin Morikawa remains humble on his journey to excellence

Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

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I nside the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, stands the office of the late, great Arnold Palmer. At the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, players are afforded the privilege of visiting his workplace and sharing in all his memorabilia and memories.

Collin Morikawa, a junior on the Cal men’s golf team, found himself immersed in a lingering spirit of greatness. Despite all the great moments of the tournament, that feeling never left him.

For only the second time in his young career, the amateur would get the opportunity to play on the PGA Tour alongside some of golf’s most heralded names, including Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

He recalls seeing his idol, Woods — “It’s a different aura that he gives off, but it was really cool being there and finally playing a tournament with him,” Morikawa says.

But Morikawa, the current No. 1 player in the entire country, had bigger aspirations than simply soaking in the atmosphere of the weekend. True to his player profile, Morikawa would go in with the mindset of winning even if all odds were pitted against him — a silent assassin.

Morikawa’s unpretentious retelling of this monumental accomplishment is a product of years of training, of stiff competition and of representing everyone from himself to his country on dozens of different golf courses throughout the world.

ome athletes have the ability to go back in time and pinpoint the exact moment when they realized that they were destined for success.

For Morikawa, this moment came in 2013 at the Western Junior Championship. At one of the oldest and most prestigious junior tournaments in the United States, Morikawa took to the course at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis.

“He always had a quiet confidence about himself; he was never cocky, but he believed in his abilities, and he remained confident even if he had a bad round.”

—Rick Sessinghaus

In a field that’s limited to 156 of the best junior golf players in the world each year, the kid, who was relatively unknown at the time, put together a performance that would forever change his life. After four strong rounds of play in the 60s, Morikawa found himself in the winner’s circle — a finish that immediately catapulted him to national prominence.

“When I won the Western Junior in 2013, it kind of changed the entire landscape of how my golf game was going,” Morikawa says. “It put me on a bigger stage, got my name out there, helped my ranking rise and pushed me to where I am now.”

Born to Blaine and Debbie Morikawa and raised in Los Angeles, Collin Morikawa fell in love with the game of golf as soon as he picked up a set of clubs. To him, golf was never an activity that was forced, but rather something that simply came naturally.

“Ever since I started walking, and even before that, my dad would hand me some plastic clubs in the house and kind of let me do my thing,” Morikawa recalls. “He then started getting into the game, and I followed him to the range, and it was something I fell in love with.”

Early on in his junior days, it became obvious to those around Morikawa that he had a God-given talent. Morikawa’s father would line up 10 balls and ask him to step up and hit each ball.

Without any hesitation, Morikawa would do so, to the amazement of his father.

“He just had a knack for hitting the ball,” Blaine Morikawa explains. “From that moment, he just fell in love with the game.”

hereafter, the Morikawas took the next step by sending their son to private lessons. The coach they entrusted to further his growth was Rick Sessinghaus.

Sessinghaus, who was a PGA professional at Scholl Canyon Golf Club in Glendale at the time, remembers his first time meeting Morikawa and his father at the range.

“He was 8 years old at the time, and I was finishing up a lesson,” Sessinghaus says. “His dad came up to me afterwards and asked if I would like to teach him. When I saw him swing, he had a very natural swing and was clearly poised beyond his years.”

Morikawa especially credits his coach for taking his game to the next level. At the beginning of their coaching relationship, Sessinghaus was more of a swing coach who helped Morikawa with the fundamentals of his game.

Over time, however, Sessinghaus, a trained sports psychologist, would play more of a role in strengthening Morikawa’s mental game. He worked on raising Morikawa’s confidence, building up his emotional resiliency and keeping him cool under pressure.

These early lessons that were ingrained in him set the stage for the strong mental player who Morikawa would soon become.

“He always had a quiet confidence about himself; he was never cocky, but he believed in his abilities, and he remained confident even if he had a bad round,” Sessinghaus reveals.

This silent assassin mentality became one of Morikawa’s best-known characteristics. From a young age, the belief that he had in himself would become a signature calling card in enabling him to reach greater heights.

While Morikawa’s story of playing junior golf was one filled with a great many successes, there were also countless sacrifices that he had to make along the way.

In an individual game such as golf, Morikawa quickly realized that to become his best, he would have to dedicate countless hours by himself on the range and around the course to improve all facets of his game.

This meant prioritizing golf above his other pursuits, with the eventual goal of one day becoming a professional golfer. Morikawa knew, however, that his sacrifices were the means to an end of ultimately accomplishing his lifelong dream.

ast-forward to Morikawa’s junior year of high school, when he was tasked with the decision of choosing which Pac-12 college to attend. In the end, Morikawa decided in favor of UC Berkeley over Stanford, UCLA and USC because of Cal’s academic excellence and its golf program, which was esteemed at the time.

The rest was history.

“When I first met Morikawa on campus in October 2013 with his dad, I remember him asking some very great questions,” says Cal head coach Walter Chun. “He was a smart kid, wise beyond his years and very mature in the way he carried himself.”

From the time that he set foot on campus, Morikawa was on a mission to pick up right where he left off in junior golf. By the time his first year of collegiate play came to a close, he had risen in the Golfstat ranking to No. 13 in the nation.

“Being the best — that’s what ultimately drives me. Whether or not I succeed, it doesn’t give me negative thoughts.”

—Collin Morikawa

Only one year later, he climbed nine spots in the ranking to No. 4. During his sophomore campaign, Morikawa also picked up his first collegiate win at the ASU Thunderbird Invitational, an important stepping stone that he would quickly build upon in his next year.

Currently in his third year with the Bears, Morikawa’s progression has become ever more apparent. With three first-place finishes to his name thus far in 2017-18 and the No. 1 ranking in the country, Morikawa has reached the pinnacle of individual success.

Despite the plethora of accolades that he has racked up over the years, Morikawa’s main goal remains leading his team back to a national championship.

“It’s been the goal since I stepped foot on campus freshman year,” Morikawa says. “I’m already in my third year, and it’s crazy that it’s almost over. I want to remember these days with the players and the coaches, so obviously it comes down to winning.”

hile he has accomplished a lot over the duration of his young career, one of Morikawa’s proudest moments came at the Walker Cup. In a competition that pits the best amateur players from the United States against the very best from Great Britain and Ireland, Morikawa was given the ultimate honor of representing his country.

At the Los Angeles Country Club, Morikawa not only helped the United States claim the victory, but he also made history by becoming only the 17th player in the history of the tournament to win all four rounds of play.

“Going 4-0 with two other players on the team was amazing. It’s an experience that’s hard to explain,” Morikawa says. “Representing your country is the biggest honor you can have. We don’t get that opportunity too often, so when it does come around, it’s something that you really got to take in and enjoy.”

Not too long afterward, Morikawa was presented with another extraordinary opportunity, and that’s where this story started — the Arnold Palmer Invitational, one of the largest tournaments in the entire season.

While most people would be taken away by the grandeur of the event, Morikawa remained unfazed.

After an opening-round par, Morikawa came out on the second day looking to prove that his first round was no fluke.

While he got off to an explosive start on the first 10 holes, he ran into a bit of trouble down the stretch. Despite the hindrance, Morikawa buckled down and parred the final three holes — one of the toughest finishes in all of golf — to make the cut and see action on the weekend.

In the next two rounds, Morikawa didn’t have his best stuff, but he was still able to put together a respectable performance.

All in all, Morikawa finished in a tie for 64th at +2 — quite the showing for an amateur playing in only his third professional start.

True to his nature, Morikawa didn’t let the pressure get to him.

“What was kind of different about that week was I was just trying to play golf,” Morikawa says. “I wasn’t too concerned with all the big names — obviously it’s kind of cool to see Tiger, but for me, my goal was to play as well as I could.”

Despite Morikawa’s extremely successful career and countless accomplishments, what amazes everyone from his coaches to his teammates to his family is his humility.

At the end of the day, despite his humble nature, Morikawa admits that his competitive drive is what sets him apart from his peers.

“Being the best — that’s what ultimately drives me,” Morikawa says. “Whether or not I succeed, it doesn’t give me negative thoughts; it just pushes me to succeed.”

Praveen Kuruppu covers men’s golf. Contact him at [email protected].