Circuit

Collin Morikawa has won four times in his young career. Interestingly enough, the 2021 PGA Championship will be his first time coming into an event as the defending champion. It was just nine months ago that his heroic drive on the 16th hole of TPC Harding Park during the final round propelled him to lifting (and subsequently almost dropping) the Wanamaker Trophy.

This year’s event will be played at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course, and other than being near the water, there’s very little in common between the two venues. As Collin prepares to defend, TaylorMade caught up with his coach Rick Sessinghaus to discuss the keys to Kiawah and their strategy for taking on the Ocean Course.

Choosing the Correct Sightline

During a recent media day at Kiawah, Collin had the opportunity to play all 18 holes for the first time. Along with Sessinghaus, the course’s PGA Head Professional walked along and provided valuable insights. While he indicated the course setup might change slightly, for the most part, “what you see is what you get.” Much of the entire course, including the green complexes, sits above the surrounding dunes to provide players unencumbered views of the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, that design element creates Kiawah’s primary defense: Full exposure to heavy winds. With that in mind, the powers to be who set the course for competition can’t make the green speeds too fast – or else run the risk of the wind wreaking havoc on the putting surface.

Overall, the course is relatively flat, and due to some design subtleties and the intricate bunkering Pete Dye is known for, it’s often difficult to see the landing areas off the tee.

“Because there are those blind landing areas, getting a clear sightline becomes very important. That was one of our main focuses during the practice round. Is it a certain tree in the distance, a pot bunker or really anything that you can pinpoint. The fairways aren’t excessively narrow, and I think it’s pretty generous off the tee. But given the challenging visuals, you have to find the correct sightline, know where you’re aiming, and the line you want your ball to start on.”
Rick Sessinghaus
Photo courtesy of the PGA of America.
Photo courtesy of the PGA of America.
Navigating the Wind

The seaside location and exposed nature of the Ocean Course give it a linksy feel. At Sessinghaus’s admittance, Collin doesn’t have a ton of experience playing links golf – which is one of the reasons he’s so excited about playing this event then following it up with the Scottish Open and the Open Championship later this year.

Playing well the wind demands many things, but perhaps the most critical is solid ball striking. Collin is perennially one of the game’s best iron players, so check that box. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the latest episode of "Rough Situations" with Collin Morikawa, treat yourself.)

The wind was benign during the front nine of his practice round, but Mother Nature began to stir as he made the turn. As he reached the closing stretch (16-18), the Ocean Course showed its teeth. The 17th is a challenging par 3 that can stretch as far as 221 yards, with water protecting the right side. The prevailing wind comes in off the Atlantic, and it can be tricky to gauge. It’s these situations that Sessinghaus believes are the most important. It’s not the shots downwind or even into the wind that demand the most skill, but understanding how to play in crosswinds.

“Collin is a very good iron player, and there will be an emphasis on flighting shots. That’s all related to the swing, and we know he can do those things,” says Sessinghaus. “The most important component to playing in the wind is decision making. It’s saying: ‘Hey, this is the shot we’re playing for.’ The club selection, the distance, the trajectory and shape, then committing to it. A lot of those decisions are made with JJ (his caddie) and Collin during the practice rounds.”

Shaved chipping areas around the greens is another link-style element to the course. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Collin use his 5-wood to chip in scenarios like that with much success. Expect to see more of that savvy short game on display at Kiawah.

Photo courtesy of the PGA of America.
Photo courtesy of the PGA of America.
Going the Distance

When stretched to the tips, the Ocean Course can reach the mammoth distance of 7 849 yards. It’s unlikely that the course will be set up at that length, particularly on Thursday and Friday when a field of 156 players will have to navigate the oceanfront terrain on time. However, depending on wind conditions, there may be added length over the weekend. While 7 800 is no longer eye-popping for Tour pros, it’s enough to get your attention, especially with major championship conditions.

Photo courtesy of the PGA of America.
Photo courtesy of the PGA of America.

The last major played here, the 2012 PGA Championship, was won by Collin’s fellow Team TaylorMade compadre Rory McIlroy. The course played 7 668 yards during that year’s final round.

The 1991 Ryder Cup, known affectionately as “The War by the Shore,” was the Ocean Course’s other shining moment in golf history. Collin was six years from being born. On the 30th anniversary of that iconic event, perhaps Collin can create his own historic Ocean Course moment by defending his PGA Championship title. To get the job done, these “Keys to Kiawah” will play a major role.

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