Morikawa Back In Middle East To Start Race To Dubai Defense

Collin Morikawa

By STEVE DOUGLAS, Associated Press

It has been a half-year since Collin Morikawa won the British Open and he has gotten somewhat used to being introduced as “champion golfer of the year.”

This is the first time the Californian has been referred to as the “reigning Race to Dubai champion” and he likes that, too.

“There’s a lot of weight that’s on (my) shoulders right now,” Morikawa said. “It’s a great weight to have and I want to come back as strong as ever.”

The first U.S. golfer to finish a season as No. 1 on the European tour, Morikawa is back in the Middle East to start the defense of a year-long title he claimed so memorably in Dubai in November.

He’s down the United Arab Emirates' coastline this time, making his first appearance at the Abu Dhabi Championship — an event that, to many, marks the start of the European tour.

And for Morikawa, it’s about maintaining the high standards he set in the first couple of years as a professional, even though that is a big ask for someone already with two majors and standout Ryder Cup debut on his résumé.

“It’s a very unusual 2 1/2 years of turning pro for me, obviously with COVID and a lot of other things in the world,” said Morikawa, who won the U.S. PGA Championship in 2020. “It’s just embracing being in the present — I think that’s the biggest thing, is how I enjoy the time wherever I am in the world.”

He has seen quite a bit of the world in recent months, too. Just take the location of his last five events: The CJ Cup in South Korea; the Zozo Championship in Japan; the World Tour Championship in the UAE; the World Challenge in the Bahamas; and, most recently, the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.

Morikawa hasn't finished lower than seventh in that period, and is ranked No. 2. He missed the opportunity to go to No. 1 by squandering a five-shot lead heading into the final round in the Bahamas and finishing tied for fifth, an improbable turn of events for a player who has proved to be so assured under pressure.

As someone who often appears and sounds wise beyond his 24 years, it's no surprise to hear he took that experience as a positive.

“I get over things pretty easily, and I think for me it’s motivation, right?” Morikawa said. "How do I learn off these bad events and how do I, you know, if I miss a cut or whatever it may be, how do I not have that happen again?

“I don’t look at it as highs and lows. I think that’s for me the wrong way of how I put it in my head. For me, it’s just you have a good week, you have a bad week, things happen and that’s what we do.”

Viktor Hovland overhauled Morikawa to win in the Bahamas and is also in the stacked field at Yas Links, which has taken over from Abu Dhabi Golf Club as the host of the Abu Dhabi Championship, with its $8 million prize fund.

Also playing is Rory McIlroy, who was last seen on the European tour photographed in a ripped T-shirt soon after his final-round meltdown that let in Morikawa to win in Dubai.

Adam Scott and defending champion Tyrrell Hatton are other big names teeing off to start their 2022 seasons.

The tour is resuming after its 2022 season launch was halted after just one of the three planned events in South Africa late last year because of the outbreak of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Morikawa said the conditions at Yas Links will be tough because of the narrow fairways, the strong winds predicted for the end of the week, and the nature of the undulating greens.

Especially in light of the recent ban on heavily detailed green-reading books that is now in force.

“When you have greens like this and you have a lot of new slopes and you have to learn a golf course, I’m going to have to do my homework,” Morikawa said. “I’m going to have to spend a little more time out there preparing and learning what to do because if I don’t know where a slope is and I somehow hit it there and I’m a little surprised, that’s going to be a problem for the entire week.”