SANDWICH, England — Collin Morikawa, playing in his first Open Championship and having never played links golf before last week, held the early-second-round lead at Royal St. George’s — another sign that, in these unusual times, it should probably just be accepted that what is not normal will prevail.
His coach, Rick Sessinghaus, would typically be here to help guide him along. Because of the various travel restrictions, though, he was watching from eight times zones away in Los Angeles on Friday, bleary-eyed, not wanting to get too far ahead of himself through just 36 holes.
“You can ask me that on Sunday when he is in contention,” Sessinghaus said when asked whether he found it difficult to have to watch from so far away. “A lot of golf left, and I’m just enjoying watching and seeing him in control of his game.”
Sessinghaus undoubtedly watched with his pride as his star pupil — they have worked together since Morikawa, now 24, was 8 years old — made playing a links course seem easy. He made seven birdies and a bogey to shoot 64 and climb the leaderboard.
Morikawa, who won the PGA Championship last year at Harding Park in his first attempt at that major, is playing in The Open for the first time and never got a taste of links golf until last week at the Scottish Open. No male player has ever won two majors in his first attempt at each. Morikawa has four PGA Tour victories in two years as a pro and is ranked fourth in the world.
“It was impressive,” said J.J. Jakovac, Morikawa’s caddie. “He’s done nothing but impress me for two years. It’s not surprising.
“It was huge going over to the Scottish last week. He learned a lot of stuff. Trying to learn how to hit more half-shots and flight it with your body. And the grass is different too.”
A couple of fairly significant changes occurred as well. Morikawa changed out three irons in his bag — his 7, 8 and 9 — from normal blades, and on longer putts, he ditched his claw grip and went conventional.
“I changed strictly because I couldn’t find the center of the face,” Morikawa said. “I was hitting these irons shots last week that I just normally don’t and my swing felt good, but it was a huge learning opportunity. Last week, I wanted to win, but I came out of it learning a lot more, and thankfully it helped for this week.”
Morikawa managed just a tie for 71st at the Scottish Open, played at the Renaissance Club, which is described as an “American links.” It might not have all the qualities of the venues used for The Open, but it has firm, fast-running turf that helped give Morikawa a sense of what he would face this week. And having lost a playoff at the Memorial Tournament and then finishing tied for fourth at the U.S. Open, Morikawa knew his game was in good shape.
But it can be risky to change clubs and putting styles.
“It’s a feel thing, but it’s more I couldn’t get the tempo on the saw [putting] grip,” Morikawa said. “I think the saw grip is amazing for me. It’s going to continue to be in my bag as I continue to putt.
“But from outside, 25, 20 feet … I couldn’t get that tempo that you see like a Brandt Snedeker put on his putts. That is something you need out here because the greens are slower than what we’re used to playing. I just switched to conventional. I didn’t have to change anything mentally.
“I just kind of went at it like I normally felt and kind of matched the speeds. That’s something that without my caddie, J.J., I wouldn’t have figured out on my own.”
It didn’t hurt that Morikawa hit 15 greens in regulation and required just 27 putts. One was the tap-in on the 18th after he narrowly missed a 10-footer that would have given him a course-record-tying 63.
“It is hard to prepare for these conditions,” Sessinghaus said. “We spent time at his course in Las Vegas before he left for the Scottish Open. We worked on alignment with his putting. When he is at his best, he plays with creativity, and this type of golf plays to that strength.
“He really likes the challenge of creating shots and feels you have to pay attention to all the factors before committing to a shot.”