In the crowd-free quiet of the P.G.A. Championship on Saturday, Collin Morikawa could hear two kayakers on the lake below the 16th hole of TPC Harding Park trying to identify golfers on the cliff above them. Eventually, the pair came up with the name of the player walking with Morikawa — Adam Scott, the former world No. 1 from Australia.
They didn’t recognize Morikawa, whose profile is becoming a lot higher this weekend.
Morikawa, 23, put himself squarely into contention ahead of Sunday’s final round with a five-under-par 65 on the often-vexing San Francisco municipal course. His 54-hole total of seven under left him two strokes behind the leader, Dustin Johnson.
At sea level and often covered in misty air, Harding has upended the norms of swing speeds and ball flights for the best players in the world. For Morikawa, though, it has been something of a comfort zone.
“It helps, I’ve played here maybe a dozen times,” Morikawa said of Harding. “I’ve played it enough. It helped to show up Tuesday and know the course already. I knew the layout. I didn’t have to figure out the putting green. It helps, not have to worry about learning the ropes.”
Morikawa played college golf at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a three-time first-team All-American and reached the top spot in the world’s amateur golf ranking. Twenty-one miles from the Berkeley campus, Morikawa is playing in his second major championship as a pro; he competed in the United States Open last year.
His third round on Saturday, anchored by a brilliant stretch of birdies at Nos. 15, 16 and 17, left him with a significant role in Sunday’s script.
The list of contenders will include fellow youngsters like Cameron Champ, 25, another native Californian, who shot a 67 to finish at eight under, tied for second place with Scottie Scheffler, a 24-year-old Texan who was low amateur at the 2017 U.S. Open.
Then there will be familiar characters like Brooks Koepka, who was seven under for the tournament, and striving at age 30 to win a third consecutive P.G.A. Championship and his fifth major over all. Also at seven under is Paul Casey, a 43-year-old Englishman looking for his first major title. And, of course, there is the 36-year-old Johnson, the winner of the 2016 U.S. Open.
Morikawa represents a new wave of player making marks on the PGA Tour since it restarted after the coronavirus pandemic halted play for almost three months.
He lost a playoff to another young star, Daniel Berger, in the first event back at Colonial in June, only to outlast the world No. 1, Justin Thomas, in a three-hole playoff at the Workday Charity Open one month later for his first professional win. Bryson DeChambeau, 26, and Jon Rahm, 23, have also won on tour since the restart.
Still learning his craft at the highest level, Morikawa said playing with veterans like Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson earlier in the week had helped him change his putting approach. After being paired with Scott on Saturday, Morikawa said the rhythmic beauty of the Australian’s swing had helped his tempo all day.
The interlude with the kayakers, though, reminded him of what was missing.
“If there were fans, I’d feel like a little more of a major feel, with big crowds,” Morikawa said, looking forward to Sunday’s round. “But yeah, I feel very comfortable, and that’s always a good sense. Three birdies in my last four holes show I’ll be ready.”
The names at the top of the leader board mean that, unlike the fairways at Harding Park, the chase for the Wanamaker Trophy is wide open.
Chaos can reign on a weekend at a major: Haotong Li, the second-round leader, lost a golf ball in a cypress tree on the back nine on his way to a 73 on Saturday. Those who embrace the vagaries of a municipal course with idiosyncrasies are surging to the fore.
“It’s a really pretty place — I like the cypress trees,” said Scheffler, whose 65 matched Morikawa and placed him a stroke better, at eight under through 54 holes. “It’s got a good look for me.”
A player who knows something about what it will take to win on Sunday offered some thoughts. Tiger Woods may have struggled again with a two-over 72, but offered his analysis of the final chase.
“You see the same handful of guys up there, they understand how to win major championships” Woods said, before name-checking Koepka. “We see Brooksy up there again. Guys who understand how to play tough golf courses and tough venues tend to be up there, whether it’s with crowds or no crowds.”
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