Collin Morikawa’s high school mentors laud humility of the ‘best athlete that’s ever come from La Cañada’

The La Cañada High School sign hovers over the half-empty parking lot an hour after a school day concludes. It’s the biggest high school in a city of just over 20,000 people. (Colin Salao/MEDILL)

By Colin Salao
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES — Collin Morikawa’s former instructors at La Cañada High School can speak at length about how the now-professional golfer was well-liked, performed well academically and, outside of being a golf wunderkind, was known for his now patented smile. But Spartans’ boys basketball coach Tom Hoffman has the briefest summary of Morikawa’s legacy.

“He’s the best athlete that’s ever come from La Cañada,” Hoffman said.

The school has produced other great athletes, including fellow pro golfer David Lipsky and Olympic luger Kate Hansen, but by sitting at World No. 2 on the PGA Tour in just his third year as a professional, Morikawa has claimed the arbitrary distinction. When the title of La Cañada High School’s best athlete was brought up to Morikawa, he smiled and cracked a joke.

Collin Morikawa answers questions two days before the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. (J.A. Adande/MEDILL)

“Have you seen my three-point shot? I was pretty good,” Morikawa said during a news conference before the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club, about 30 miles west of the city of La Cañada Flintridge.

While the joke was a sarcastic brag, Morikawa’s instinctual divergence from his golf status showed his deference, one all his former teachers preached about him.

“He was so groomed, it seemed like he knew he was going to be successful but was so humble about it,” said Dr. Jarrett Gold,  principal of La Cañada 7/8 who accompanied Morikawa to Pebble Beach during his senior year state championship tournament.

Brent Beady sits at the office desk of the classroom where he taught Collin Morikawa AP U.S. Government/Economics. He says he and Dr. Jarrett Gold talk frequently about Morikawa’s rise up the PGA Tour ranks. (Colin Salao/MEDILL)

During that same year, Morikawa sat in the front row of Brent Beady’s Advanced Placement U.S. Government/Economics class. He had to submit one of Beady’s staple assignments for seniors: a life budget starting from post-high school graduation to five years after college. 

Morikawa knew then that in a few months, he would be going to the University of California, Berkeley. If he could tell the future, he’d also have told  Beaty that he’d place in the top five in nearly half his college tournaments, be the best amateur golfer in the world in three years and win his first major tournament on the PGA Tour by 2020. But in 2015, even Morikawa couldn’t project his meteoric rise.

“I remember Collin telling me … ‘Mr. Beaty, I want to be a pro golfer,’” Beaty said. “I’m going to  try to do the minor tours, work my way to get my PGA card.’ (His submission) was a struggling pro golfer’s life where you have to work your butt off to earn a card.”

Morikawa maintained this practical mindset even if it was no secret he was a cut above the rest in La Cañada. Andrew Shortall, who covered the Spartans for the La Cañada Valley Sun during Morikawa’s first two years in high school, recalled the hype around Morikawa.

“People knew he was going to come in and be the best player on the team right away,” Shortall said. And as a freshman, Morikawa backed it up by winning the 2012 All-Area Boys’ Golfer of the Year, an award a Spartan senior had won in each of the previous three years.

Gold, who had spent time caddying for a friend on the Korn Ferry Tour (then the Nationwide Tour) said Morikawa in high school looked better than plenty of pros he’d witnessed.

 “I’ve seen guys on Nationwide, some of them became PGA (Tour) guys, and to see his level compared to their level, it was special,” Gold said. “He had it all at 17.”

The 2012-13 Spartans boys golf team photo is displayed in the office of La Canada High School Athletic Director Carrie Saks’ office. Morikawa (front row, second from the right) was team captain that year, according to his coach, Rich Wheeler. (Colin Salao/MEDILL)

Morikawa’s high school coach, Rich Wheeler, said he’s not surprised to see his former athlete succeed not only because of his skill level but also because of his attitude and work ethic.  According to Wheeler, there were moments when Morikawa would get dropped off by the school bus at 7:30 a.m., then get picked up by his professional coach to work on the driving range until 11 a.m. 

He would usually come out on top in tournaments, but whenever he had a bad day, he’d be on the practice green working on his game as they waited for the final score tally. 

“He always said, ‘Coach, I’m gonna be the best,’” Wheeler said of Morikawa. “My job was to not screw him up.” 

However, Wheeler does admit that Morikawa’s rise went “a lot sooner” than he expected. 

Gayle Nicholls-Ali poses outside the room where she teaches photography at La Cañada High School. She taught Collin Morikawa during his senior year. (Colin Salao/MEDILL)

But the time Morikawa spent working on his craft led to his senior year photography teacher Gayle Nicholls-Ali’s memory of him as the athlete who would never show up to class. Nicholls-Ali said she was used to athletes on the football or basketball teams missing class, but Morikawa was unique because he would be the lone absentee since he would compete in golf tournaments outside of school.

“It was almost a daily thing,” Nicholls-Ali said. “I remember saying, ‘I guess he’s pretty good,’ and the kids in the class were like, ‘Oh, he’s really good. He’s gonna go pro.’”

She says she didn’t question Morikawa much because he always came through with the make-up assignments, a sentiment echoed by several other teachers when speaking about Morikawa missing class for golf.

Nicholls-Ali also recalls having a conversation with Morikawa during his senior year about his passion for golf and desire to go pro. Years later, she saw him on TV as a member of the PGA Tour.

“It was like, ‘Oh, he did play golf, and he was as great as they said!’” Nicholls-Ali said. “It’s really nice to see that he did (follow his passion) and succeeded at it.”

While Morikawa’s lore continues to grow at La Cañada High School, it’s the school and the small city he put on the map that has kept him grounded.

“La Cañada always brings me back to a place where I can just separate myself from golf,” Morikawa said. “That’s the biggest thing I think a lot of golfers and athletes need to learn.”

The desire to shake off the bright lights and search for normalcy is on-brand for the kid from quiet La Cañada Flintridge who just wanted to play pro golf. Even as he’s already the best athlete in his school’s history and, potentially soon, the best golfer in the world, the Japanese American player says his biggest accomplishment is in the inspiration he gives his community.

“I feel like kids — especially Asian-Americans — can look at me and be like, ‘We finally see a kid like this, and he can do it and I can do the same,’” Morikawa said. “I have to go out there and show my best … and make sure that they understand that a kid like me can go out and live their dream.”

Colin Salao is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @colinsalao.