SANDWICH, ENGLAND | Collin Morikawa and the Claret Jug glowed in the evening sun. In what had been a gem of an Open, bearing in mind that it was being held amid a pandemic, Morikawa could not have made for a more popular winner. He was modest, he was appreciative of everything the Open Championship had to offer, he caught the imagination of the crowd – and he played the finest golf of all.
As is well known, the 24-year-old, who won with two shots to spare, was making his debut when he won the 2020 PGA Championship and, in being a first-timer again at the Open, he made history as the only player to bag two majors at his first attempt.
“By far one of the best moments of my life,” he said at the prize-giving. He was sad that none of his family had been with him at Sandwich, but how comforted he seemed to feel at the extent to which the crowd took him under their wing. “Thank you, guys,” he said.
There was another “Thank you, guys,” for the R&A for putting on “a great, great championship” and then, talking on everyone’s behalf, he said a heartfelt, “We’re all so lucky to be here.”
The Open itself was indeed a triumph for R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers and everyone involved in a year of ridiculously tough decision-making. Of course there were a few criticisms, most notably about the pin positions, particularly on Day 3. No more did the length of the rough meet with all-round approval, though it has to be said that it made for some entertaining if sometimes painful viewing. At one point, someone likened the sight of Bryson DeChambeau trying to hack his way out of the long stuff to those monster spectator buses trying to negotiate the cobbled streets of Sandwich.
“He’s got the head for the big stage and he’s got the potential to cope with any bumps he might meet along the road."
Jordan Spieth on Collin Morikawa
The locals, mind you, will soon have this lovely corner of the world back to themselves as all the spectator stands, the TV towers and the Mr Whippy ice cream vans (if, indeed, the R&A own those as well as everything else) are packed into containers and shipped to Dubai. Apparently, they will stay rust-free in that part of the world before making their return voyage to St Andrews and the 150th Open.
Physically and mentally, the links were wearing out the competitors almost without them knowing it. Jordan Spieth and Louis Oosthuizen were just two who flagged towards the finish of their third and fourth rounds, with Spieth’s missed tiddler at the 18th on Day 3 giving everyone to wonder what the legacy might be on the last lap. Spieth himself said that he had walked into his hotel on Saturday evening and almost looked “for something to break.” He was fine by the time he teed off Sunday and, when he made his eagle at the seventh hole, he advised his caddie, “We’re going to go for everything now, put the pressure on Collin.”
He was 9-under to Morikawa’s 12-under at that stage but Morikawa was not about to let him back into the mix. Indeed, when he made three birdies in a row from the seventh to be out in 32, he was four ahead of Spieth and Oosthuizen.
Spieth was only two behind when he birdied the 13th and, though he made another birdie down the long 14th to get within one, Morikawa, playing behind, did the same at that par-5 to happily restore his two-shot lead.
Nothing, perhaps, had impressed Spieth more about Morikawa than the way he had gone from playing in a virtually crowd-free environment for a year and a half to being at his best in front of 32,000 spectators.
“He’s got the head for the big stage and he’s got the potential to cope with any bumps he might meet along the road,” Spieth said.
Everyone felt for Oosthuizen. He had started the week having had six runner-up spots in majors since he won at St Andrews in 2010 – and twice in his last two starts – and even as good a judge as Tom Watson thought that he would make it across the line this time. Last Thursday, the South African had talked about “that little person inside” who gets on to him whenever he had one of those near misses and, when that interview was over, I asked him how, if I were to give him a pencil and paper, he would draw that little person. He gave it a moment’s thought before breaking into a smile.
“It would be a mini-me and he would be battering me on the head with a club,” the South African said.
Alas, that “mini-me” with his club was going to be back in action by today though. With Oosthuizen being the well-balanced family man that he is, he will get over it soon enough – and we can rest assured that his fans will not be giving up on him at the next time of asking.
Finally, a few more words for the fans who, not that they showed any signs of concern, were serving as guinea pigs for a UK government wanting to analyse how COVID-19 and its variants reacted in an outdoor environment. Morikawa said in a post-round interview that he hoped they had stayed safe. To a man, the spectators were carried away by the heat and the golf, with the only time one saw any attempt at social distancing (not that any was expected of them) coming when regular fans wanted to disassociate themselves from parties of youths with beers in hand and in a partying mood.
Some, such as Jon Rahm, found the noisy brigade more than mildly irritating but Marcel Siem, the star from the Challenge Tour, took the “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. From time to time, he thumped the air as one who, had he not been so busy playing, would have been inclined to party himself.
Morikawa again captured the fans’ overall contribution better than anyone: “They bring an energy and life to what we do.”
And the winner, for his part, taught every would-be golfer a lesson with an approach to the game that is all about enjoying the moment and revelling in the challenge of each individual shot.
Top: Collin Morikawa salutes the fans at Royal St. George's.