Does everybody really love the golden boy? Is it really so compelling to watch somebody with endless promise and a spotless image? Maybe, but that’s pretty dependent on the “endless promise” part. The golden boy needs to produce to maintain his image.
I am a little too young to really remember Tiger Woods’s days as a golden boy. I was just a few months old when he won his first U.S. Amateur title, strutting along the edge of the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass as he rolled in a birdie putt from the fringe to edge Trip Kuehne. I was three when Charlie Pierce’s story for GQ showed Tiger to be a little crude and immature, puncturing the careful image that the Woods family had maintained since Tiger was a boy. I was 14 when Woods’ feet of clay were truly exposed, when the psychological price that he had paid to make sure the well of endless promise never dried up truly came to light. I never had the chance to really buy into the hype, to believe in Tiger Woods as the golden boy. I’ve always thought of him as an enduring, fascinating, shattered man.
But brands are afraid of the shattered man. Accenture, Gillette, Gatorade, and AT&T all dropped Woods after his sex scandal became public. After 15 years with his face on the cover, EA Sports tried replacing Woods as the title athlete in its golf video game series with Rory McIlroy—an experiment that lasted a year before the series was discontinued completely. There is a lot of money sloshing around in the golf world—many fans are affluent and eager consumers, and many consequential executives are fans—and, arguably, to have a good chunk of it, all a major-winning golfer needs to do is stay out of the news. And so many golfers, seemingly, veer as far from risk as they can.
Collin Morikawa is not a risk taker. He is a golden boy. Or at least he was. He’s 26 years old and has two major championship wins. He’s got a tight haircut and a big, glowing smile. He plays an unconventionally sexy game—not big and booming, but startlingly precise. He, famously, exclusively hits a cut that is really more of a straight ball. He’s repped by Excel Sports Management, an agency where the golf division is, notably, run by Woods’ longtime agent, Mark Steinberg. Everything that has to do with Collin Morikawa is about control—that worked out, for a while. But the one thing even the best iron player in the world and a cautious management team can’t control is a slump.
When Morikawa won the 2021 Open Championship, he was riding an incredible hot streak. He’d won two of his first eight major starts and notched two additional top-10 finishes. He wasn’t winning PGA Tour events at a stunning clip, but there were few weeks when he wasn’t in the mix, and he clearly could make a move when it mattered. But that feels like a long time ago. Morikawa went winless in 2022 (and is currently winless in 2023) and has fallen to 18th in the OWGR. Just two years after earning the top automatic qualifying slot for the Ryder Cup team and earning 3.5 points in four matches, he’s, unthinkably, outside the points bubble for Marco Simone.
No matter who you are, your golf swing will leave you for a time. The game comes and goes for everybody. Sometimes a slump, like the one Morikawa is in right now, just happens. But sometimes your faculties fail you at a critical moment, and those failures linger. And if I had to pinpoint spots in the last year that could still be living somewhere in Morikawa’s brain, that could have led to greatness-derailing doubts, I would start with this:
Morikawa had been cruising all week at the 2023 Tournament of Champions. He’d gone three rounds without making a bogey and led the field by six strokes going into Sunday. On the birdie-friendly course at Kapalua, he kept up his pace through the front nine—Jon Rahm, Morikawa’s closest pursuer, was six back as he made the turn. Then, as Rahm tore through the back nine, making four birdies and an eagle, Morikawa began making distressing mistakes. He hit a couple bad putts, as he tends to do, but on 14 he also bladed a bunker shot over the back of the green and made bogey. On the gettable par-5 15th, he chunked what should have been a 50-yard approach shot and made bogey. The tournament, more or less, ended there, but, for good measure, he bogeyed 16, too. At the start of the day, it looked as if the golden boy was going to put 2022 behind him with a decisive win at the first-ever designated event. Then, in three holes, the bottom fell out. At the time, it felt to me like a potential career-altering collapse. I still hope I was wrong.
But even before then, there were signs of developing scars. Did you know that Collin Morikawa led the 2022 U.S. Open after two days of play? Because I’d forgotten. Playing with Joel Dahmen on Saturday, he shot a 7-over 77. He spent the entire day in the fescue. He was not in control.
Los Angeles Country Club, where this week’s U.S. Open will be held, is not a bomber’s paradise. Earlier this year, Dahmen, one of the shorter players on tour, told me he liked his chances there. Gil Hanse, who knows the course as well as anybody, picked Morikawa to win the tournament. Current form aside, that tracks. Precise iron play is going to count for a lot.
But the thing is: current form counts for a lot, in both golf and in branding. Bizarre late-night interviews about cereal are charming when somebody is a serial winner. Promotional materials with questions that amount to Why are you so perfect? are funny and a little fitting when somebody seems infallible. But when the cracks in the armor show, you can’t white knuckle your way through it. You have to adapt. The way through is not always to hold on more and more tightly, to grasp for more control.
Full Swing was far from a perfect document, but as far as a number of PGA Tour players are concerned, it’s the most complete accounting of their lives as we have. In it, Morikawa got an unflattering edit. He shared an episode with Tony Finau, who grew up poor and now travels to tournaments with his wife and five kids. Finau comes off affable and vulnerable (a theme of the episode is about his struggle to win tournaments) and generally like an actual person, somebody who is aware of his issues on the course and his priorities away from it. Morikawa, on the other hand, is flat and shielded. A talking head literally calls him the “golden child.” His most memorable moment in the episode is an awkward one: he looks, disgustedly, at a (admittedly ugly) fabric swatch presented to him by an Adidas rep and rejects a proposed future ensemble. That’s it.
Roger Federer had what could generously be called a curated persona. But while he developed a reputation as a walking Rolex ad, he also became known as a crier. He wept after wins and more famously after losses. It worked out. His competitive failures were forgiven because he wasn’t a sour, guarded former champion—he was a man who accepted that he had limitations and didn’t try to hide them. In a way, he finished his career in 2019 after a crushing defeat. He held two championship points in the Wimbledon final that year before losing to Novak Djokovic in a fifth-set tiebreak. Nobody had held a championship point and gone on to lose the title in over 70 years, and Federer wouldn’t have another realistic shot to win a major again. But that’s not how most people will remember the end. They’ll remember this photo, of Federer holding hands with his rival Rafa Nadal, weeping, of course, after (losing) a glorified exhibition doubles match. They’ll remember that he was willing to let us in, at least a little bit.
Collin Morikawa could win the U.S. Open. If he does, he won’t be making the rounds on late night shows (solidarity!), but he’ll surely go somewhere to talk more about cereal. We’ll talk about how he’s won more majors than any other player this decade and have renewed faith that he is, in fact, the golden boy. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to see what would happen if he lost and told us something real? If he loosened up and let a ball go left?