But it was a 23-year-old from Los Angeles, California, who separated himself from all the big hitters to claim his first major at just the second time of asking.
Collin Morikawa — who finished on 13-under after a final-round six-under 64 — won the first major of 2020, finishing two shots ahead of Johnson and Paul Casey at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. His total weekend score of 129 is the lowest ever by a major winner.
While there were no fans to applaud the debut PGA Championship winner — with just a few cheers and some clapping from the individuals who were present following his winning eagle putt on the 16th hole — Morikawa’s victory sent shockwaves across the golfing landscape. But, according to the US golfer himself, it is just the beginning.
“It doesn’t stop here. I’ve got a very good taste of what this is like, what a major championship is like,” Morikawa — who went to college at the University of California, Berkeley — said after his victory.
“The majors are going to be circled in, just like everyone else, but I’ve got to focus on every single week. I’m trying to win every single week. I’m not trying to come out and just win the majors. I’m 23. This is my first full year.
“I love golf. I love every part of it. 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.”
‘It’s been crazy’
Just 15 months ago, Morikawa was still in college. Just 14 months ago, he made his professional debut.
Even before turning professional, he had had a distinguished amateur career, spending time as the top-ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
It took him just four PGA Tour events to finish in the top three. It took him just six tournaments to win, doing so at the Barracuda Championship in 2019. He started his PGA Tour career by making 22 consecutive cuts, and only Tiger Woods has started his career by making more.
Since the return from the break due to the coronavirus pandemic, he’s been in red-hot form. He finished second in the Charles Schwab Challenge in June before winning the Workday Charity Open last month.
Morikawa now has three PGA Tour wins in just 29 starts. Remarkably, he has more wins that missed cuts.
A California boy playing in a California major, in a typical major, the 16th hole would normally be lined with fans cheering on the hometown favorite.
But due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there were only a few stewards, marshals and other players to watch him sink his winning putt, which was the only dampener for Morikawa.
“This is the one time I really wish there were crowds right there,” Morikawa said.
Entering the PGA Championship, Morikawa was the world No. 12. Now he is ranked fifth in the world with a chance to move to the No. 1 spot at the Northern Trust in Massachusetts in two weeks.
At the age of 23 years, 6 months, 3 days, Morikawa became the third-youngest PGA Championship winner since World War II, behind only Rory McIlroy and Jack Nicklaus. But comparisons to Woods — who also won the competition aged 23 — are farfetched at the moment, according to Morikawa.
“It’s great company. It’s been crazy, because this entire start of my professional career, I see all the things comparing to Tiger … but Tiger is on a completely different level. I think we all know that,” Morikawa said.
“But any time you’re in the conversation of the greats, Jack, Rory, Tiger, no matter who it is, if you’re in that conversation, you’re doing something well.”
Not all perfect
Morikawa’s composure with some of golf’s biggest names breathing down his neck to close out in confident style drew admiration from his fellow competitors. Koepka called him “a helluva player” while Casey said Morikawa “thoroughly deserves” his victory.
He is just the ninth player to win the PGA Championship on their debut.
While his performance on the course left little to be critiqued, Morikawa’s trophy lift had a lot of room for improvement.
As he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy aloft, the lid slipped off, much to the enjoyment of the few spectators watching, and Morikawa himself.
But while his trophy lift might suggest he wasn’t prepared for that situation to arise, Morikawa says he feels “comfortable” in the winning habit.
“I’ve believed in myself since day one. I haven’t let up from that,” he said.
“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.”
As a result of his victory, as well as becoming the world No. 5, he has moved up to second in the FedExCup standings. With the FedExCup Playoffs fast approaching and six majors in the next 11 months, Morikawa’s already rising star could be just beginning its meteoric ascension.