Golf Champion Collin Morikawa Defends PGA Title

Morikawa will be defending his title this week when the tournament is played on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina   

PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News

There was a time not so long ago when those taking in the impressive swing of Collin Morikawa knew major stardom was within his reach.

One of those was Ed Smith, who recognized the young La Cañada High School talent had what it took to one day put his game up against the best players from around the world.

Smith, South Pasadena High’s former golf coach, remembers Morikawa for what he calls his “cool and calmness” when he faced the Tigers, showing the same demeanor exhibited last year when he won the PGA Championship, one of four majors, at TPC Harding Park by two strokes in San Francisco.

“He’s very focused, has a great mental approach to the game and doesn’t get rattled,” said Smith, following Morikawa’s first major title on the PGA Tour. “He has a great attitude. Those are the kind of kids you root for.”

Smith lavishes nothing but praise for Morikawa, who later went on to become a three-time All-American at UC Berkeley, a Walker Cup member, and No. 1 ranked amateur in the world, now defending his PGA crown this week on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina.

It was just nine months ago when then 23-year-old Morikawa, a Southern California native, was nearly flawless over the four days it took to win, only to have a minor mishap during the trophy presentation when the lid popped off as he hoisted it over his shoulder during the victory ceremony. Morikawa sheepishly grinned as the top of the famed Wanamaker Trophy took a tumble, falling to the ground. He couldn’t have felt too bad, however, after walking off with $1,980,000 in first place earnings.

Morikawa grew up playing at Chevy Chase Country Club in Glendale, a nine-hole course with 10 greens designed in 1925 by William P. Bell. He was born with what he calls “a competitive fire,” never feeling good about losing, looking forward to a competition “against anybody at anything.”

Standing 5-foot-9 and tipping the scale at mere 160 pounds, Morikawa puts every ounce of power into his swing, belting the ball with tremendous force. Helping him make the best of his effort is a strong support team, including Rick Sessinghaus, his parents Blaine and Debbie, caddie J.J. Jakovac, agent Andrew Kipper and girlfriend Katherine Zhu, a collegiate golfer at Pepperdine University.

He’s always cheered for the Dodgers, Lakers and another Southland golfing great. “Tiger,” he told ESPN, as in Tiger Woods, arguably the best player to ever play the game. “That’s all I cared about. I thought, ‘I want to be like him, I want to go beat him, I want to go against him.’ ”

The PGA Championship returns to Kiawah for the first time since 2012 where Rory McIlroy won by eight strokes. Morikawa was in high school back then, and saw the course for the only first time last month one day after winding up 18th in the Masters.

“Now that I’ve had one, you realize why guys want to win majors, why major championships kind of define what a player’s resume is going to look like at the end of their career,” he told Yahoo Sports.

Morikawa’s standout play in winning the PGA title last August didn’t get past South Pasadena High Athletic Director Anthony Chan, who said the young golfer was known as an “absolute class act” when he played for La Canada. “He brought a lot of excitement and buzz about golf to the local area and our league. The Rio Hondo League has had strong male and female golfers over the years, but Collin has definitely cemented himself as one of the best to come out of the area in recent years. He’s a great ambassador of golf, and I am excited to see more of what he will do on the green as well as off.”

With a friendly and easy disposition, Morikawa says he’s exactly where he wants to be in life, telling Golf Magazine: “I love golf. I love being in this position and I love just being able to come out here and play with a bunch of guys that love the sport, too.”

Since winning the PGA, Chan says he’s kept a close eye on the defending champ, saying this week, “It’s exciting to have a player from the area play great golf. I think Collin represents the Rio Hondo League well and demonstrates the class, sportsmanship we expect from our student-athletes.”