It’s easy to say now, but Collin Morikawa felt like he was going to win the 2020 Players Championship. Sure, he was still five back after an opening-round 68, and the rest of the tournament was cancelled due to COVID, but it’s hard to blame any player from that 2020 field for playing a little game of coulda, woulda, shoulda.
It’s been a coulda, woulda, shoulda-type season so far for the two-time major winner. He could have seriously contended at Riviera if not for a Saturday 72. He would have had a shot to win at Torrey if not for a furious finish from Max Homa. He should have won at Kapalua, but a disastrous back nine allowed Jon Rahm to snatch away the victory.
The theme continued Thursday at TPC Sawgrass, where Morikawa’s first-round 65, his career low at the Pete Dye gem, could very easily have been a 64, or a course-record matching 63. You could even argue that it could have been the course-record 62 like he did.
“Even on 7 I lipped out [for birdie],” said Morikawa, who also lipped out on the par-3 eighth and the par-5 ninth, both on birdie putts.
All three misses came inside 20 feet, the final one on the ninth coming from just six feet. Despite the ones that got away, the ones that could have, would have and should have dropped, the 26-year-old was in high spirits as he briefly sat atop the leader board before being overtaken by Chad Ramey.
“There’s no sour taste,” he said. “Sometimes they drop and sometimes they don’t, especially when rounds are going like that. You obviously wish to have them, but it is what it is. Overall, the game feels really good, and I’m just going to take that into the next few days and just kind of use that momentum to hopefully play three more really good rounds.”
The game looks very good, too. Morikawa gained nearly four strokes on approach in his opening round, over six shots tee-to-green and just under a stroke with his putter, the club that’s often the difference between him sniffing around the top 10 on Sunday and running away with the tournament. All of it coming together on Thursday has him feeling the way he did here on Thursday in 2020.
“My swing hasn’t looked this good probably since 2019 when I first came out,” said Morikawa. “I’ve played very well, 2020, 2021, but position-wise I just love where I’m at right now and just freeing everything up, just allowing me to just look up at my target and hit the ball, and hopefully it goes where I want it.
“So, yeah, I think I’m very happy with that, and that just allows that freedom to just kind of forget about everything else and hit your shot.”
It’s difficult to ever feel that freedom at TPC Sawgrass, where volatility and deception reign supreme. Of course, Morikawa’s fairway-finding cut and uber-consistent iron play should theoretically be the antidote to that. But, outside of that first-round 68 in 2020, that hasn’t quite been the case for him here.
Morikawa was quick to counter that narrative with some necessary context, however.
“People really dig in these results,” said Morikawa, who missed the cut in last year’s brutal weather and tied for 41st the year prior. “I’ve played it two years, and last year was a weird one. My first year was, you know, it is what it is.
“I don’t take too much from like previous history,” he added. “Obviously when you play well you feel comfortable, so there is a reason why you played well. But the places that I haven’t played well at, I don’t look at it as like, oh, man like this course doesn’t suit my game. So I think if you look at stats like that, yeah, you can look at it that way, but I haven’t had a course where I’ve been like, man, like I can’t play here. That’s a thing. So I wouldn’t really buy into that as much as a lot of people like to do.”
Barring another world-stopping turn of events, Morikawa will have a prime opportunity to avenge the 2020 Players and make a legitimate run at his first tour win since the 2021 Open Championship. That sentence remains hard to believe given the amount of tournaments he could have, should have and would have won in the 20 months since.