Collin Morikawa was making one of the most satisfying walks in golf, down the 18th fairway as a soon-to-be British Open champion, when he looked up at the huge grandstand surrounding the green. (More Sports News)
It was filled with spectators, who firstly were applauding and soon giving a standing ovation to a 24-year-old American making a historic start to his major championship career.
So different to 11 months ago, when Morikawa won his first major — the PGA Championship — at an empty venue.
"I hope the thing is off the table," Morikawa said, "that I can play with fans and I can play well on a Sunday."
Fans. No fans. Parkland. Now even links. Morikawa is the real deal, make no mistake.
The mature-beyond-his-years Californian closed with a bogey-free, 4-under 66 at Royal St George's and won the British Open in his debut Sunday, becoming the first player to capture two different majors on the first attempt.
And this time there was a crowd, at 32,000 the biggest since golf returned following the coronavirus outbreak.
After tapping in for par to win by two shots over Jordan Spieth, he gave a fist pump before applauding the spectators.
Before long, he was being handed the claret jug that so many go their entire career without winning. He gazed adoringly at it, then thrust it into the air and gave it a kiss.
"Those are the moments, the few seconds that you embrace so much," he said.
"And you look around, every seat is packed. Everywhere is packed with people."
They were seeing a young player already halfway to the career Grand Slam after eight starts, the first since Bobby Jones in 1926 to win two majors in so few appearances. He follows Gene Sarazen, Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Spieth in winning multiple majors before turning 25.
His total of 15-under 265 was a 72-hole record in 15 British Opens at Royal St George's. In 13 of them, the winning score has been 5 under or lower.
"When you make history," he said, "it's hard to grasp, it's hard to really take it in ... At 24 years old, 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."
He did it with style amid immaculate weather on the links off Sandwich Bay, flushing shots with his irons and getting up-and-down on the rare occasions he found trouble. He called his putting display one of the best of his short career, turning a statistical weakness into a strength.
Starting the final round one shot behind Louis Oosthuizen, Morikawa was tied for the lead after four holes and then made three straight birdies on Nos. 7-9 to overtake the South African, who hadn't trailed since the 12th hole of his second round.
Morikawa made key par saves — pumping his fist both times — at Nos. 10 and 15, between which he rolled a birdie putt up and over a ridge and into the cup on the 14th to build a two-stroke lead he never lost. Spieth parred his final four holes and also shot 66.
By making par at the last after another perfect drive, Morikawa played his final 31 holes without a bogey on a course that has confounded many great players because of its quirky bounces and undulating fairways.
All the more remarkable was that this was his first major test on a seaside links. Morikawa had little experience with this style of golf before playing the Scottish Open last week at The Renaissance Club, which is not a traditional links but featured the kind of tight lies and rolling terrain that prepared him for it. He even had three new irons in his bag this week.
He completed a feat achieved by Ben Curtis on the same course in 2003, winning golf's oldest championship in his links debut.
For Oosthuizen, who was seeking a wire-to-wire win and a second claret jug — he had a runaway victory at St. Andrews in 2010 — it was another near miss in a career full of them. He was runner-up this year at the PGA Championship and the US Open, two of his six second-place finishes at majors.
This time Oosthuizen tied for third with U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm (66) after closing with a 71 — his first round not in the 60s this week. He never recovered from losing his lead with an ugly bogey on the par-5 seventh hole. He caught way too much ball out of the greenside bunker with his third shot, which bounced onto the putting surface and landed in a bunker on the other side.
Morikawa made a routine birdie on the hole to move two ahead of Oosthuizen. Spieth had made eagle at No. 7 a few minutes earlier.
"Well I do know one thing, the fans at the Open are second (or third) to none," Oosthuizen said on Twitter, having declined to talk to reporters.
"Thank you for the incredible support this week, and congrats to Collin Morikawa who played with class and grit today."
Spieth had his closest call in a major since winning the British Open in 2017 at Royal Birkdale. Missing an 8-foot par putt at No. 4 and hitting his tee shot into a bunker at No. 6 led to dropped shots. He made up for those with his eagle and played the final 10 holes in 4 under.
"I did everything I could in the past few hours to win this championship," Spieth said.
It was his bogey-bogey finish on Saturday — he missed a 2-foot par putt on the 18th — that Spieth mostly regretted.