It was Masters week 1966 and Jack Nicklaus was five years into a golf career that would one day rival the best in the history of professional sports.
Prior to that tournament, which Nicklaus would win, he spoke candidly about a dream he had. Nicklaus, who had quickly become a branding giant as the biggest name in pro golf, expressed his desire to create his own tournament. He wanted it to be like The Masters, an elite event that would draw eyes from all over the world.
Grateful to an exuberant Central Ohio golf community that had fully accepted and assimilated him as their own, Nicklaus wanted to bring the prestige of championship golf to them.
That dream would later be realized in the form of Muirfield Village Golf Club, a golf haven built in the Columbus suburb of Dublin that would represent everything Nicklaus adores about the game that made him a legend.
Muirfield would be the host of Jack’s event, a tournament known as The Memorial.
In 1976, the first edition of the Memorial teed off, and since then, it has evolved into one of the greatest shows in golf. Today, The Memorial draws a field that rivals any non-major on the PGA Tour. Everyone wants to become part of the history of an event hand-crafted by a man they all grew up admiring.
This week signals the 42nd running of the Golden Bear’s brainchild and, as always, nearly anyone who is anyone in the world of professional golf will be there.
Headlined by World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, in addition to juggernauts Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, and others, the battle for the Buckeye State looks to be one of its best yet. With all due respect to LeBron James, Cleveland doesn’t hold a candle to Columbus this week.
Often referred to playfully as “The House Jack Built”, Muirfield Village was completed in 1974 and instantly became a paragon of course design excellence.
Constructing it with fan viewing foremost in mind, Nicklaus did not just create a golf course, he created the ultimate golf fan experience. Muirfield Village launched a global Jack Nicklaus design empire, as he would go on to put his name and ideas to many of what are now known as the best golf courses in the world, such as Valhalla (Kentucky), Harbour Town (South Carolina), Killeen Castle (Ireland), and Manele (Hawaii).
As for The Memorial Tournament, the inaugural event was held in 1976, with Roger Maltbie taking down Hale Irwin in a playoff. With an even-par champion, Muirfield Village was brutally difficult in that first year, but changes were made as the tournament progressed, and while the course never got anywhere near easy, it became more appropriately challenging, yielding winning scores that were more in line with most of the best tournaments.
Memorial champions have included Nicklaus himself, along with Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Curtis Strange, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, and Ernie Els. With five victories, Tiger holds the record for most Memorial titles, with Kenny Perry (three) being the only other golfer with more than Nicklaus (two).
The Memorial’s most famous tradition is the annual honoring of one person who has greatly contributed historically to the game of golf. Previous honorees (chosen by something called the Captains Club) have included Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Patty Berg, Babe Zaharias, Ben Hogan, and Arnold Palmer.
Nicklaus was even chosen to be the honoree one year (2000). This year, that distinguished contributor is two-time Memorial champion Greg Norman.
Name: Muirfield Village Golf Club
Where: Dublin, Ohio
Distance: 7392 yards
Architect: Jack Nicklaus
Winning Share: $1,566,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
The defending champion of The Memorial Tournament Presented By Nationwide is William McGirt. Through 54 holes, McGirt was in a three-way tie with Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland, but McGirt played mistake-free Sunday golf, carding 17 pars, 1 birdie, and no bogeys for a one-under 71.
At -15, the tournament went to extra holes, with McGirt defeating little-known Jon Curran with a par on the second playoff hole. It was the first win of McGirt’s PGA Tour career.
Other Recent Champions
2015: David Lingmerth
2014: Hideki Matsuyama
2013: Matt Kuchar
2012: Tiger Woods
2011: Steve Stricker
Lowest Final Score: 268, 20-under (Tom Lehman, 1994 victory)
Low Round: 61 (John Huston)
Round 1: 2:30-6:30 PM – Golf Channel
Round 2: 2:30-6:30 PM – Golf Channel
Round 3: 12:30-2:30 PM – Golf Channel | 3-6:00 PM – CBS
Round 4: 12:00-2:00 PM – Golf Channel | 2:30-6:00 PM – CBS
Storyline 1: First Time PGA Tour Winners
An interesting phenomenon has recently taken place at The Memorial Tournament. The last three champions: William McGirt (2016), David Lingmerth (2015), and Hideki Matsuyama (2014) not only were victorious for the first time at Muirfield Village, but the win represented their first career PGA Tour victory.
This year’s field is replete with very talented golfers still looking for PGA win No. 1. It would not be surprising if on Sunday, Jack Nicklaus is congratulating his fourth consecutive PGA first-timer.
If it is going to happen again, here are the top five most likely players:
5b. Patrick Cantlay
Wouldn’t this be something? In 2011, Cantlay was the next big thing on Tour. He finished T21 as an amateur at the U.S. Open, and then shot a second-round 60 the very next week in Hartford at the Travelers Championship.
Cantlay turned pro in 2012 as a 20-year-old, and he was hyped as the possible future of American golf.
The next five years, however, were disastrous, as injury and personal tragedy completely derailed his elite trajectory. His start at this year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am marked his first competitive tournament since 2014, and while Cantlay has only played in six 2017 tournaments, the returns have been incredibly encouraging.
Making the cut in all six events, he was the runner-up at the Valspar Championship, just his second tournament since a nearly three-year Tour absence. He also finished T3 at the RBC Heritage, and in his most recent start, he managed a very respectable T22 at THE PLAYERS Championship, which is even better when taking into account that he shot a 77 in one of those rounds.
In a tournament that historically has so many great stories, a Cantlay victory might trump them all.
5a. Graham DeLaet
After a long drought without a native-Canadian winner on Tour, it has happened twice this season, with MacKenzie Hughes taking the RSM Classic, and Adam Hadwin winning the Valspar Championship.
If Canada is going to have a third golfer capture a title on the season, Graham DeLaet, a 35-year-old from Saskatchewan is almost definitely the best bet.
DeLaet has fallen off significantly from his 2012-2013 form, when three runner-up finishes were among his 14 top 10s, but he has seen something of a resurgence in 2017 with four top 10s in 16 events.
In two appearances at the Memorial, DeLaet has a T21 and a T26, showing at least some level of comfort with the course.
4. Byeong Hun An
An, a 25-year-old from South Korea, looks very close to standing in the winner’s circle and could very well be the next breakthrough Memorial winner.
At No. 56 in the OWGR, An has already broken his personal season record for earnings ($1.01 million). He has made 13 cuts in 14 events this season, with three top 10s. Two of those top 10s have occurred in his last two Tour starts: a T8 at the Wells Fargo Championship and a T5 at the AT&T Byron Nelson, where he broke 70 in all four rounds.
This will be just An’s second Memorial appearance, but he played very well last year in his first attempt, posting four consecutive under-par rounds in a T11 effort.
3. Tommy Fleetwood
Ranked 31st in the world, Fleetwood has been successful as a regular on the European Tour winning twice and currently ranking second in the Race To Dubai standings.
The 26-year-old Fleetwood has only played 17 PGA Tour events in his career, but he looks close to winning. He was runner-up to Dustin Johnson at the WGC-Mexico, and at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he bounced back from a first round 78 and somehow finished inside the top 10.
2. Rafa Cabrera-Bello
At No. 28 in the world, Cabrera-Bello is the highest ranked player in the field without a PGA Tour victory. That ranking shot way up in 2016 as Cabrera-Bello had top-5 finishes at the WGC-Match Play, the Shell Houston Open, and the Wyndham Championship.
He was even better on the world stage as he finished fifth at The Olympic Games, and was one of Europe’s best players at the Ryder Cup, scoring 2.5 points. The Spaniard was the only undefeated player on the European side.
In his most recently start, he finished T4 at THE PLAYERS, exploding onto the leaderboard with a double-eagle, birdie, par finish. Last year was his first start at The Memorial. Cabrera-Bello finished T52 after posting 3-under in round one.
1. Ross Fisher
At 36-years-old, Fisher is the oldest player on this list, but he looked the closest to notching PGA win #1. The world No. 43 has seen a resurgence in his game since seemingly disappearing off the face of the golf world, with six top-10 finishes between the PGA and European Tours.
On the PGA side, he finished in the top 6 of all three WGC events he entered, with a T3 at the WGC-Mexico, T5 at the WGC-Match Play, and a T6 at the WGC-HSBC Champions.
On the European side, he has top 10s in his last three starts. This will be his first Memorial start.
Honorable Mention: Bud Cauley, Soren Kjeldsen, Kevin Tway
Storyline 2: McGirt Returns to Muirfield
William McGirt’s breakthrough victory at last year’s Memorial Tournament was the downright inspiring culmination of over a decade of unrelenting hard work.
For years, McGirt toiled away on every mini-Tour imaginable, clawing, scratching, and sacrificing his way up the proverbial ladder. Finally, on June 5th of last year, McGirt ended a 0-for-164 winless drought when he played his last 22 holes bogey-free, and took down Jon Curran in a playoff.
Now, in 2017, he will be playing the role of defending champion in his seven-year PGA Tour career.
McGirt’s Memorial triumph led to a good deal of high finishes in the past year. A T7 at the 2016 WGC-Bridgestone and a T10 at the 2016 PGA Championship were his best post-Memorial results, and both coming against elite fields.
McGirt has gotten used to being on the first page of a leaderboard, and the moment never seems too big for him anymore. He has added three more top 10s in 2017, with a high finish of T3 at the RBC Heritage.
At the Masters, McGirt sat in second place after 18 holes despite terrible conditions. At 3-under, he was one of just three players who did better than 1-under in the first round. McGirt faded over the weekend for a T22, but found many positives to take from his Augusta experience.
In 2017, the strength of McGirt’s game has been his efforts off the tee. He has not been exceptionally long, but he has been exceptionally accurate. His 71% driving accuracy percentage ranks fifth on Tour. If he again finds fairways and avoids big numbers, there is no reason he couldn’t contend at Muirfield Village again.
Storyline 3: World No. 1 in the Field
The 2017 season has been about Dustin Johnson… and then everyone else. His hold on the World No. 1 spot appears impenetrable; there is a bigger difference in average world ranking points between DJ and No. 2 Rory McIlroy than there is between Rory and No. 23 Phil Mickelson.
Johnson has not finished outside the top 13 since January, collecting three victories, a runner-up, and a solo-third in just seven events in that span. The scary thing is, it could have been even better.
A torrid hot streak of three straight wins was broken after a freak off-course injury forced him to withdraw from The Masters. If he had not slipped on those stairs, we could be in truly unthinkable territory.
The standard he has set is so high, that in three starts post-Masters, DJ has finished T2, T12, and T13, and many people are wondering what’s wrong with him. Seeing his name high on leaderboards has started to be taken for granted.
The 32-year-old Johnson has not yet added “Memorial Champion” to his incredible resume, but he has come very close. In last year’s edition he finished solo-third, just one shot out of the McGirt-Curran playoff.
It was a frustrating finish for DJ, however, who dropped four shots on the back nine. His only other top 10 at The Memorial came in 2011, when a final round 65 allowed him to soar up the leaderboard and into solo fourth place.
DJ has become a/the favorite in every event he enters, regardless of the location. This week is no different.
Other Notables In The Field
A T2 finish in his championship defense at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational answered some questions about the state of Spieth’s game, a strong finish coming off a very uncharacteristic two missed cuts.
Jordan and his Scotty Cameron putter have made up after a brief trial separation, and he appears to have his whole game back.
The world No. 6 is in the midst of another fine season, winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in addition to five other top-10 finishes. Spieth struggled at last year’s Memorial, as his T57 was his worst finish of the year in a tournament where he made the cut, but he has had success in this event before, finishing T3 in the 2015 edition.
If anyone in the field is the “home” guy, it is Jason Day, a native Aussie who has adopted Columbus as his American hometown. He is a resident of nearby Westerville, a Northern Columbus suburb, and his wife’s family is also from the area.
Day even brought his mother to Columbus from Australia for cancer surgery at The James Cancer Center at The Ohio State University. The fans are very likely to rally around him.
As for his game, it has turned around. The world No. 3 was in the midst a surprising three-month funk, but appeared to break out of it in Dallas, where he finished runner-up to Billy Horschel at the Byron Nelson Classic.
While Day was tremendous for the week, there is concern about what kind of mental state he will be in after he ended that tournament with a missed three-foot par putt on the first playoff hole.
Similar to what Spieth and Day went through recently, there are some questions about the state of Rickie Fowler’s game after a missed cut – T60 stretch over his last two tournaments. That T60 was especially troubling, as he shot a final round 7-over 79 to plummet down the board.
If he can get past his last finish at TPC Sawgrass, he should be one of the favorites at Muirfield Village. He has played well in 2017; much better than he did in 2016, with a win and a T3 being among four top 10 finishes in just 10 events this season.
While he has missed the Memorial cut in each of the past three seasons, he has had success in the tournament before, finishing runner-up to Justin Rose in 2010.
Matsuyama’s Memorial triumph in 2014 was his first win on the PGA Tour, so this course likely holds a special place for him. At No. 4 in the world, Matsuyama is the third highest-ranked player in the field. He got his current season off to an unbelievable start, winning twice and notching two other runner-ups by the second week of February.
He does not have a top 10 in the three months since, although he did play mostly well at The Masters (T11) and THE PLAYERS (T22), ending the latter with a round of 3-under 69.
Matsuyama missed the cut at last year’s Memorial, but was T5 the year prior in his championship defense.
Now 50 years old, Stricker does not compete often on the PGA Tour anymore, but plenty of players took notice of the tournament low 7-under 63 he posted in the final round of last week’s Dean & DeLuca Invitational, which allowed him to finish T7.
Stricker was not originally scheduled to play at Muirfield Village, but added the event recently as he is attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open in his home state of Wisconsin.
The 2011 Memorial champion did not participate last year, but did finish T6 in 2014. With three finishes of T16 or better in his last four 2017 events, Stricker will definitely not be an afterthought going into the Memorial.