Josh Schrock

2020 PGA Championship was welcome gift to weary souls amid virus struggle

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2020 PGA Championship was welcome gift to weary souls amid virus struggle

The beauty of sports lies in its escapism. In its ability to lift spirits and make souls soar even amid the most trying times.

That escapism is among the many things the coronavirus pandemic has robbed of us over the past few months. Title chases and milestones were put on hold as we as a society were given our own championship moment.

One we as a country did not meet.

Asked to socially distance and mask up to stamp out a once-in-a-generation public health crisis, we instead allowed our political divisions to exacerbate the threat, leaving us with no option but to desperately wait for a vaccine to arrive and return us to normalcy.

While that biological white knight has yet to arrive, we were given a gift this past week, a welcome break from the daily anxiety-filled slog of fighting an invisible foe.

After 13 months away, major championship golf returned with the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park as the first championship event of the COVID-19 era.

For decades, golf’s majors have been used to mark the passage of time. Like everything else, that tradition was scrapped this year as the coronavirus ravaged the world.

The Masters, an annual ceremony to welcome spring, will now take place in November to signal the end of Autumn. The U.S. Open, a Father’s Day tradition, won't arrive until well past Labor Day.

The British Open, golf’s oldest major, was canceled outright.

Time is yet another aspect of normal life that has been rendered almost meaningless by this global pandemic.

Since the American sports world shut down March 12 and our struggle began, time has been both paused and accelerated. One day has bled into the next as we’re left with only simple daily edicts to follow, making life mundane and deflating as the lives we knew creep farther away from recent memory.

For years, the PGA Championship was golf’s forgotten major. “Glory’s Last Chance” had no identity except as the final hurrah of the golf season. It moved from August to May last year, in an effort to elevate to the same level as its peers.

But the 2020 PGA Championship, which 23-year-old Collin Morikawa won by outdueling the world’s best on Lake Merced, forever will be linked to this moment in history.

For the dazzling display of golf, no doubt. But more for the reprieve it delivered to a country lost adrift in a crisis it lacks the unity, leadership and fortitude to triumph over.

The first major of 2020, which kicks off a string of seven major championships in 11 months, had an odd feel. It was eerie to not hear thunderous applause welcome Tiger Woods to the tee box, and unnatural that roars did not echo off the cypress trees as Morikawa, a Cal alum, made his back-nine charge into the history books.

It was jarring and strange at first, we should expect nothing else in a time characterized by never-before-seen challenges. But it also undoubtedly was a major championship, one that gave everyone sitting at home crowded around their televisions something they desperately had been searching for. Something to, at least momentarily, make our fears and problems melt away. 

The tension at Harding Park was palpable from the opening tee shot Thursday. It was welcome tension. The kind that comes not from a daily existential dread while fighting to keep an invisible foe at bay, but the pressure that comes from watching golf’s best tested both mentally and physically with their legacies on the line.

The week was stuffed with storylines and loaded with high drama. TPC Harding Park a perfect host to welcome back major championship golf.

But at the end of the day, the 2020 PGA Championship gave us more than the return of major championship golf.

It gave our exasperated minds the opportunity to look toward the future, to see a path forward. It was a reminder that this too will pass. That crowds will once again flock to watch Woods stock major championships and marvel as Rory McIlory pummels drives at golf's most iconic theaters. The major moments we can witness in person no longer will be taken for granted because we will remember the time we were unable to take in San Francisco's municipal jewel as it tormented the best in the world.

[RELATED: Koepka's aura of invincibility shattered by reality at PGA]

The PGA Championship finally joined its counterparts as a major attached to meaning, with the 2020 edition serving as a defining moment of this era and a building block that, at least in some way, made us a little more whole.

It gave fresh meaning to tomorrow, presenting us with four days to view our next 24 hours not with anxiety and heartache, but with excitement, anticipation and hope.

Major championship golf arrived in one of our darkest hours, and it delivered a much-needed gift for our weary souls as a light in the darkest of times.

Collin Morikawa's PGA Championship win completes meteoric rise to stardom

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Collin Morikawa's PGA Championship win completes meteoric rise to stardom

The only mistake Collin Morikawa made Sunday came well after he outdueled the world's best to win the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park and etch his name into golf history in the process.

The 23-year-old star stood on the 18th green and lifted the Wanamaker Trophy high over his head, sending the topper flying off the body of the trophy and onto the firm grass that had served as a stiff test for the world’s best.

The topper was placed back on top of the trophy as the Cal product laughed, fully soaking in his major moment.

No harm, no foul.

Such was the case throughout Morikawa’s final round Sunday in which he fired a dazzling 6-under-par 64 to claim the year’s first major at 13-under-par, two shots ahead of Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey.

Fifteen months ago, Morikawa was at Cal’s commencement ceremony in Berkeley. Now, after winning in only his second major start, the No. 5 ranked golfer in the world has officially joined the ranks of golf’s upper echelon.

“I'm on Cloud Nine right now,” Morikawa said after securing his first career major title. “It's hard to think about what this championship means, and obviously, it's a major, and this is what guys go for, especially at the end of their career, and we're just starting. So, I think this is just a lot of confidence, a lot of momentum, and it just gives me a little taste of what's to come. I got a taste of this now.”

Morikawa entered the final round at TPC Harding Park at 7-under-par, two shots back of 54-hole leader Dustin Johnson. There 12 players, including Brooks Koepka, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau, who were within three shots of the lead when play began.

Major championship golf is a pressure cooker made to chew up and spit out those with the faintest hint of doubt. Many might have expected Morikawa, experiencing his first major Sunday in contention to go away early.

He faced trouble on the first when his approach shot spun back into the bunker giving him a tough up-and-down to remain at 7-under. But calm and steady, Morikawa pitched out to 23 feet and drained a bomb to save par.

After birdies at No. 3 and No. 4, Morikawa made another massive 26-foot putt to save par on No. 6. Major championships often are won not by crazy birdie barrages, but by round-saving and, in this case, title-saving pars.

Such was the case Sunday.

Morikawa made the turn at 2-under for the day and birdied No. 10 to jump into a tie for the lead.

As the tension ratcheted up down the stretch, it looked like the young star succumbed to the pressure when he left his approach shot at the Par-4 14th hole short, giving him a tricky up-and-down from 54 feet away.

But he didn’t buckle or bend. There were no nerves. Just a steely resolve.

Morikawa landed his chip on the fringe, it hopped once and slid into the bottom of the cup for a birdie three that gave him the lead by one with four to play.

A month ago, Morikawa stormed back to beat Justin Thomas at the Workday Charity Open at Muirfield Village. During that closing stretch, he drove the green on the short Par-4 14th hole, setting up a key birdie.

Sunday, he stood on the tee at TPC Harding Park’s drivable Par-4 16th hole tied for the lead after Paul Casey made birdie right in front of him.

With 278 yards to the front of the green and the Wanamaker Trophy in his sights, Morikawa pulled driver.

The shot fit his eye perfectly as he unleashed a mighty lash that sent his major hopes soaring through the thick San Francisco air. Had fans been in attendance the roar would have shaken the Earth as the ball landed in front of the green, bounced twice and rolled to seven feet, giving Morikawa a look at eagle.

As if he’d been there before, Morikawa stepped over the putt and sent it into the bottom of the cup, etching his name on the Wanamaker Trophy in a moment that will go down as one of the shots that defines this storied championship.

“I actually did,” Morikawa told CBS’ Jim Nantz when asked if he channeled the shot he hit at Muirfield on 16. “You know, 14 at Muirfield is pretty special and my caddie looked at me after I hit my shot on 16 and asked me the same exact question. It just fit my eye and we were just hoping for a really good bounce, we got it, made a good putt and now we’re here.”

The California cypress trees and Lake Merced were the perfect backdrop for Morikawa’s major coronation, serving as the theatre in which his meteoric rise from talented amateur to golf’s next star was completed.

With the win, Morikawa joined Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy as the only players to lift the Wanamaker Trophy before age 24, and he was just the fourth player since 1934 to win a major in his second start.

[RELATED: Koepka's aura of invincibility shattered with does of reality at PGA]

Morikawa joined golf’s elite class in an area that he holds close to his heart, penning what looks to be the first of many chapters in the story he always felt he was destined to star in.

“Yeah, I feel very comfortable in this spot,” Morikawa said after hoisting the Wanamaker. “When I woke up today, I was like, this is meant to be. This is where I feel very comfortable. This is where I want to be, and I'm not scared from it. I think if I was scared from it, the last few holes would have been a little different, but you want to be in this position.

“And for me, like you said, like I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t stop here. I've got a very good taste of what this is like, what a major championship is like.”

Brooks Koepka given dose of reality while folding at PGA Championship

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Brooks Koepka given dose of reality while folding at PGA Championship

In the end, Brooks Koepka wrote checks that his game simply couldn't cash.

For the past three years, Koepka has swaggered around the golfing world with an air of superiority as if he had found the secret to contending and winning major championships. An elixir to greatness known only to him.

Koepka's act was at first new and refreshing and he backed it up, winning four majors in two years, including back-to-back U.S. Opens and back-to-back PGA Championships.

His constant major success turned his confidence to arrogance. He pretended to not care about contending at regular tour events as if it were beneath him to worry about competing against his contemporaries more than four times a year. He claimed that he found contending at and winning majors to be easier because he entered the week believing he only had to beat a handful of players, thinking most either weren’t at his level or didn't have the mental fortitude to contend and thrive on the biggest stages as he had.

Koepka talked the talk --and for a time walked the walk -- trying to convince people he was an invincible force at major championships that it would take a Herculean effort to best. That he, like Tiger Woods in his prime, was unfazed by the major moments that make most players buckle. The four-time major champion spent the last two major seasons playing phenomenal golf and drinking his own Kool-Aid, buying into the myth he’d been crafting, that he had something every other player simply did not.

Koepka’s act reached an insufferable level of arrogance Saturday when he walked off the green after the third round of the 2020 PGA Championship and immediately started disregarding 54-hole leader Dustin Johnson, a 21-time PGA Tour winner and U.S. Open champion.

Like a high school jock who bullies kids to make himself feel better, Koepka acted like it was a foregone conclusion that he would overtake Johnson on Sunday at TPC Harding Park to win his third consecutive Wanamaker Trophy to become the first player to three-peat at the PGA Championship since Walter Hagen won four in a row from 1924-27.

As it turns out hubris doesn’t make you a major champion. The beauty of golf is that there is no hiding when your game leaves you, and the game delivered Koepka a massive dose of reality Sunday on Lake Merced.

Koepka opened the day two shots back of Johnson but almost immediately fell out of contention, going out in 4-over par, which included carding three straight bogeys on holes seven, eight and nine, to drop to 3-under for the tournament.

His shot at immortality was gone. His aura of invincibility shattered.

“Every time I hit it in the rough today, I got probably the worst lie I've had all week,” Koepka said after shooting a 4-over-par 74 to finish 10 shots back of winner Collin Morikawa. “You know, if you're going to put it in the rough out here, it's pretty tough. The green speeds this weekend I never really got down. I felt like the putting green was a little bit quicker. And just never quite got putts to the hole to make anything. So, you don't do that, it’s going to be tough.”

Even after Sunday’s final-round flop, Koepka was quick to deflect the attention back to his recent major track record.

“I mean, it's my first bad round in a while in a major,” Koepka said trying to brush off his poor play as he would on a Thursday at the Zurich Classic. “You know, hey, wasn't meant to be. Three in a row, you’re not really supposed to do two in a row looking at history, but that's all right.”

After having plenty to say before the final round, Koepka didn’t offer much Sunday evening. He was complimentary of Morikawa, who won the title in just his second career start, and exited stage left.

All the verbal jabs and excessive arrogance couldn’t ignite Koepka’s game Sunday. Karma and the golf gods poked holes in his act as golf’s unbeatable alpha male.

There is no secret sauce to Koepka’s major success. Having supreme confidence in yourself doesn’t make you bulletproof on major Sundays. There are no accidents in golf. You either have it or you don’t.

Koepka’s major run was brilliant, of that there is no doubt. His four major wins already have him ticketed for the golf Hall of Fame, and he is more than capable of adding more majors to his resume.

But the elaborate persona he’s constructed over the past two years evaporated Sunday when he came apart like a wet paper sack as TPC Harding Park handed him his lunch. His 4-over-par 74 was the second-worst score in the field Sunday, ahead of only Jim Herman’s 75.

[RELATED: Rory takes jab at Brooks following dig at DJ]

Koepka entered Sunday’s final round overconfident and left deflated after buckling under the weight of major history.

A mortal just like the rest of us, Koepka now must prove the greatness he showed over the past two years is real and sustainable.

Only his game can do the talking this time around.