The 2021 major championship season was one of firsts. It was one brimming with history, as majors should be, and wholly memorable, as we always hope they will be.
With his two-stroke victory Sunday over Jordan Spieth in the 149th Open Championship, Collin Morikawa became the first player to win two different majors in his first attempt on the heels of his debut triumph just 11 months ago in the PGA Championship at Harding Park. His impeccable performance tied together the four majors into a neat bow, something golf, with all its unpredictability, seldom affords.
Last month we saw Jon Rahm, by willing home birdie putts on the final two holes at Torrey Pines, become the first Spaniard to win the U.S. Open and join the major champion club. In May, at Kiawah Island, Phil Mickelson won his sixth major and second PGA title, but the victory was the first in a major by a player 50 years old. And in April at Augusta National, the green jacket was thrown over the shoulders of Hideki Matsuyama, who with his Masters triumph became the first Japanese player to win a men’s major title.
Morikawa, 24, didn’t make a bogey over his final 31 holes at Royal St. George’s for a closing four-under 66 and 15-under 265 total, but we mention those figures only for numerical house-cleaning purposes. The real significance of his come-from-behind win over hard-luck Louis Oosthuizen is that he can forever be referred to in the same breath with Bobby Jones, the only other player to win two majors in his first eight starts.
“I think when you make history…and I’m 24 years old, it’s hard to grasp, and it’s hard to really take it in,” Morikawa said. “It’s so hard to look back at the two short years that I have been a pro and see what I’ve done because I want more.”
More surely is coming, one would think. With a T-18 in the Masters his only finish this year outside the top 10 in the four biggest events in men’s golf, Morikawa has left no doubt that he is built for excelling in majors.
So has Rahm, who assembled the best major season of the year, finishing T-3 Sunday with a strong closing push to go along with his T-8 at the PGA and T-5 at the Masters. His win in the 120th U.S. Open, done with flair and determination, conjured memories of his late fellow countryman, Seve Ballesteros, not bad company either.
What Mickelson accomplished in the PGA, just a month shy of his 51st birthday, only shines brighter as one of the most incredible accomplishments in golf history as the rest of the year unfolded, particularly in light of what transpired at St. George’s when he opened with an 80, the highest score in the field. The enigmatic left-hander has been a non-factor in every other event in which he’s played – made-for-TV events included – but somehow squeezed some last bit of magic from his body and soul at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island to surpass Julius Boros as golf’s oldest major winner.
If the other three majors had been a complete bust, Mickelson’s win alone would still have made 2021 special.
Then there’s Matsuyama. His triumph by a stroke over Will Zalatoris was seismic in the same way as Adam Scott’s in 2013 at Augusta when he gave Australia its first green jacket. Both stirred a sense of national pride in their respective home countries that is impossible to measure and equally difficult to appreciate if you are not from one of those two nations.
Of course, as big stories with deep meaning unfolded in the four majors, a collection of top names came up wanting in head-scratching ways. Heavy favorites like Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau were rarely in the mix with the notable exception of DeChambeau, who actually held the lead early for a short spell in the final round of the U.S. Open before imploding with an inward 44 at Torrey Pines South.
Call him the Mad Bomber or the Mad Scientist, but DeChambeau really was just mad at the majors after winning the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Incredibly, his T-26 in his title defense at Torrey, despite the closing meltdown, yielded his best finish of the year among the four tournaments.
Not much happier was Johnson, who managed a T-8 at Royal St. George’s, his only top-10 this year after putting an exclamation point on his 2020 season with a green jacket. Some knee issues flared up in May, but by then he had missed the cut in his Masters defense and at the PGA, joining Greg Norman (1993) as world No. 1 players to miss the cut in consecutive majors.
Winner of the Players in March, Thomas never gave himself a chance in any of the four majors, shooting over par in the first round of each. That sums up a year in which he sucked it up and managed two top-25s, but the world No. 3 was a distant 40th at St. George’s and still hasn’t registered a top-10 finish in five appearances in golf’s oldest championship.
Knee problems also plagued Brooks Koepka, but he seemed healthy enough to make a run at the PGA, finishing T-2 with Oosthuizen. He also was T-4 at the U.S. Open, undone by a cold putter. Thanks to his final-round 65 Sunday, he managed a third top-10 finish, tying for sixth. Nice work and all, but as he said afterward, in true Koepka fashion, “Doesn’t really matter what I finished today. I didn’t have a chance to win. That’s disappointing.”
A word here about Oosthuizen, who might have just endured the most heart-wrenching series of major results in one year since Ernie Els in 2004, when Mickelson birdied the 72nd hole in the Masters to beat him by a stroke, a result that started a flurry of disappointments that also included a playoff loss in the Open Championship to Todd Hamilton (honorable mention to Dustin Johnson in 2010).
Two second-place finishes and a tie for third amount to very little except what goes into the bank account. Twice he held the 54-hole lead, on Sunday at St. George’s and at last month’s U.S. Open, but he still is without a second major to go with his 2010 Open title. And although NBC’s Paul Azinger insisted that the smooth-swinging South African isn’t done, Oosthuizen, at 38, with a history of back and neck problems, probably can’t play much better than he did the last three months.
We didn’t mention Jordan Spieth earlier, but that’s because no one knew what to expect of the three-time major champion at the outset of 2021 after he had fallen to 92nd in the world. We can say that he easily could have won this week were it not for that dreadful bogey-bogey finish to his third round, but his rebound on Sunday after two early bogeys to push Morikawa gave us a glimpse of the Spieth we were used to seeing. He added a silver medal to his third-place finish at the Masters in April, which is why he spoke with optimism after his closing 66 at St. George’s.
The 27-year-old Texan claims his putting “is not close to where I want it to be at all,” which says a lot about his overall progress when he is just one of three men, along with Rahm and Oosthuizen, with at least two top-three finishes in this major campaign.
Finally, there’s Rory McIlroy, who has now gone seven full years without adding to his four major titles. Other than a decent bid at the U.S. Open, where he ended up T-7, the talented Northern Irishman can’t find his way into contention in majors, let alone win them. At 32, he has become an enigma, and the worst part is he seems to know it, even joking on Sunday after finishing T-46 that “if you want someone to shoot even par for you for a week, I’m your man.”
The disappointments have to be eating at him, though. “There is enough good stuff in there to contend at these golf tournaments.” he said. The goal, however, is to do enough to win them. Otherwise, as Koepka noted, what does it matter?