Collin Morikawa shines as Rory McIlroy wilts in Dubai | Sunday Observer
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Collin Morikawa shines as Rory McIlroy wilts in Dubai

28 November, 2021

What contrasting figures Collin Morikawa and Rory McIlroy cut as they departed Dubai after an enthralling finish to the European Tour season.

While Morikawa was all smiles and hellbent on world domination, McIlroy was dishevelled; his shirt ripped through fierce anger at not being able to convert a winning position into a third DP World Tour Championship title.

Perhaps the final hour in the desert on Sunday showed us why one of these players is such a potent force on the world stage while the other remains embroiled in battle to rediscover former glories at the highest level.

Yes, McIlroy was on course for back-to-back wins, but fragility remains and it came to the fore amid some, admittedly, appalling luck midway through the back nine of his final round.

At the same time Morikawa was showing how it should be done. The most striking aspect of his game is its ruthless efficiency; he never wastes a shot when in the hunt for a title.

And on this occasion it was golfing history that was uppermost in his mind. The US star knew that victory would ensure he became the first American to win the European circuit’s order of merit.

McIlroy wilted down the stretch in alarming fashion. His woes began on the hole before his perfect looking approach to the 15th cannoned off the flag and back into a bunker guarding the front of the green.

The outstanding quality in the Northern Irishman’s opening 67 holes had been his touch around then greens. But at the 68th, the 14th hole of his final round, his routine chip was a tad heavy-handed and it cost him the birdie he needed to keep out in front.

Then he failed to get up and down from that bunker at the next and, rattled, at the 16th he three putted. Three extra, wasteful shots, at precisely the wrong time.

Without those he would have still been in the hunt despite Morikawa’s blistering finish. A birdie at the par-five closing hole would have tied Morikawa, who had timed his run to perfection with five birdies in the last seven holes.

Context is significant because for the last 12 holes of his third round and the first six of his final circuit Morikawa had logged 18 straight pars. He had chances, did not take them, but never lost patience nor focus.

Instead he found something when it was most needed and rammed his foot on the gas Lewis Hamilton style to surge to glory. It is easier done when you are the reigning Open champion and with a World Golf Championships title in the bank from a stellar year.

But those achievements do not fully satisfy this hungry 24-year-old from California. His future objective is crystal clear. “Win more,” he said.

“It’s not an encore. It’s not a swan-song farewell to what I’m doing in 2021. I’m going to set some high goals. I always have. I’m going to set the bar as high as I can get and keep going.

“I’m still not number one in the world. I still have a lot to work on in my game. Obviously this week was good. I still thought I wasn’t playing amazing, but I made do.”

Morikawa, the imperious Open champion at Royal St George’s last July, is entitled to these lofty ambitions, especially given the strength of his mind at clutch moments.

“The mental game is nearly 50%, if not more than the physical game in our sport,” he said. “It’s not just physical; it is mental. You have to keep yourself in it.”

He is certainly at a stage where golf feels relatively easy and less likely to hit him where it hurts in the way that it did to McIlroy on Sunday.

We can only guess the thoughts of someone who tumbled from the lead to a share of sixth place in that calamitous final hour because he did not stop to share any with the waiting media.

McIlroy had ripped his shirt in obvious frustration, knowing that there is still a way to go for him to return to the sort of form that last brought him a major title back in 2014.

Furthermore he knows the standards required to succeed in the current era do not make such a quest any easier. Six of the seven players ahead of the 32-year-old in last week’s world rankings are younger than him.

Jon Rahm remains the game’s top dog but is under pressure from Morikawa and a clutch of other young Americans, who romped to record breaking 19-9 Ryder Cup success last September.

By winning the Race to Dubai, Morikawa rammed home his country’s ascendancy over Europe despite the stellar year of Spain’s US Open champion, Rahm.

“I know I’m going to enjoy this one a lot, especially since it’s at the end of the year,” Morikawa said. “But there’s a lot more from me hopefully.”

It is a persuasive promise from the history making Morikawa who, quite rightly, is putting no limits on what he might achieve in the game.