Most Open debutants take a while to adjust to the unique challenge of golf’s oldest major but Collin Morikawa looks right at home already.
On a morning when scoring was difficult, the 24-year-old showed how it is done with a sublime round of 64 to take the clubhouse lead at The 149th Open on -9.
Morikawa even had a putt to tie the Royal St George’s course record but his birdie attempt on 18 grazed the hole and refused to drop. But it cannot dampen a fine round that brings him right into contention for the Claret Jug.
The American teed off at 8.25am on -3 thanks to a quietly impressive 67 on day one and, in a sign of things to come, he birdied the first hole.
Another followed at 5 but it was around the turn that he really caught fire, with four birdies from five holes at 8, 9, 11 and 12, while there was also a mature par-save at 13 to light up this famous links course.
When he holed out at 18, his lead was three over Louis Oosthuizen and fellow day two mover Daniel van Tonder and he can be assured of a lie-in tomorrow before round 3.
THE PERFECT START
The opening hole is almost defined by the tee shot. Avoid the nasty rough down either side and the pin is gettable, as proven by Morikawa who made a fabulous start with a birdie on the par-4.
After safely negotiating the treacherous par-4 2nd – which the first 17 groups went through at an average of 4.346 – and the notoriously difficult 4th, Morikawa once again displayed his talent with a fine approach at the 5th.
From the middle of the fairway and with 184 yards to the pin, he landed his iron shot onto a blind green and controlled the spin so it rolled within five feet of the hole. That was birdie number two and moved him to -5, one behind Oosthuizen.
COLLIN ON THE CHARGE
Morikawa’s putting is the only part of his game that can go awry but he banished any doubts with an amazing run of birdies around the turn.
It started at the 8th, with a gentle putt down the slope from 25 feet that rolled beautifully into the hole – a birdie that saw him move to -6 and join Oosthuizen.
It got even better at the 9th, with another fairway found and another gorgeous iron into the green that stopped within five feet of the hole. That putt moved him to the top on his own, as he reached -7 thanks to a front-nine 31.
Now full of confidence, the 2020 PGA champion conquered the par-3 11th thanks to another fine tee shot and backed it up with a superb putt on the 12th green to reach -9.
A SCARE AT 15 AND SEEING IT THROUGH
The meaty par-5 at 14 was the easiest hole on the course at midday, with 16 birdies and just one bogey from the morning starters, but Morikawa was given a wake-up call from the tee.
He mis-hit it straight into wild left rough and could only punch the ball out sideways, but recovered with yet another fine iron shot into the green and sunk the birdie putt from 10 feet to reach -10.
That prompted talk of a new course record – which stands at 63 – and perhaps even a new record for major Championship golf, which is currently 62.
But reaching double figures proved short-lived, however, as Morikawa again found the left rough off the tee at 15. With bunkers between himself and the green, he opted to fire it out to the right and chip to the pin from there, but his plan went wrong when he missed his putt for par.
That was Morikawa’s first bogey of the day but he rebounded with safe pars on 16 and 17, before a strong finish on 18.
His tee shot found the fairway and his approach was even better, pitching in the heart of the green and spinning to within eight feet.
A birdie would have seen him match Sir Nick Faldo and Payne Stewart’s 63s at Royal St George's – as well as equalling the lowest score after the first 36 holes of an Open – and though it just stayed out, the smile on Morikawa’s face told you all you need to know.