While the COVID-19 pandemic left a number of courses unplayed in 2020, Muirfield Village, Jack Nicklaus’ gift to golf, was honored to host two events.
In addition to The Memorial Tournament, played in July rather than the week after Memorial Day, the iconic course also hosted the Workday Charity Open the week prior. It was the first time since 1957 that a venue hosted consecutive events on Tour.
Yet, it felt like two different courses with a 19-under score winning the Workday and a 9-under score winning The Memorial. There were some wind and weather issues, but it illustrated just how difficult this prestigious invitational is. Among the non-majors and non-WGC events, The Memorial Tournament is arguably the most prestigious event of the year after THE PLAYERS. As usual, it will have an elite field, with seven of the top 10 in the world rankings in attendance.
As fans continue to be a regular presence on Tour again, they will have no shortage of storylines to follow in Columbus, Ohio this week.
Here are the some of the biggest:
1. Jon Rahm Defends Memorial
Last year’s July edition The Memorial Tournament was what many considered to be a fun watch, but what it wasn’t was especially competitive. Jon Rahm was a one-man show at Muirfield Village, riding momentum from a field-low final round the previous week on the same course (a T27 result) into an event that felt like a completely different course.
Opening with three rounds in the 60s, Rahm accumulated a four-stroke lead through 54 holes, and after a bogey-free front nine on Sunday, that lead swelled to eight at the turn.
A bogey-double stretch early on the back-nine made things at least somewhat interesting again, as Ryan Palmer was able to get within three strokes with three holes remaining. Palmer’s hopes of completing the comeback were squashed when Rahm shockingly holed out from a horrendous lie just left of the green. His win was by five at first.
After completing the round, Rahm was informed that his epic hole-out would incur a two-stroke penalty, with the rules officials saying that he made the ball move when grounding his club. Many disagreed with the ruling, but the damage was only cosmetic, with the win being officially by five rather than three. With the victory, Rahm reached No. 1 in the world rankings for the first time.
Rahm’s reign atop the OWGR lasted just a week before Justin Thomas took it (Rahm would get it back later), but the Arizona State product stayed in tremendous for the rest of the 2020 season, with four top-13 finishes in five additional starts, including a dramatic playoff victory over Dustin Johnson at The BMW Championship, the second round of the FedExCup playoffs.
Ten months later, the 26-year-old Spaniard sits at No. 3 in the world rankings, and while he has yet to win in the 2021 season, his ten top-10s in 16 starts is two better than Jordan Spieth for the Tour lead. He has continued to flash brilliance, most notably with a final-round 66 at The Masters, an event he nearly missed when his first child was born just days before, to backdoor a T5 finish.
In his most recent start, he finished T8 at the PGA Championship, which also can be credited to a tremendous Sunday to rocket up the leaderboard. He is unquestionably the best player in the world to not yet win a major championship.
If Rahm is able to win again, and get another congratulatory fist-bump (hopefully a handshake this year) from Jack Nicklaus, he would be the first to successfully defend his Memorial title since Tiger Woods in 2001.
Currently, ranking third in strokes gained: off-the-tee and strokes gained: tee-to-green, he definitely has the complete game to make a good run at it.
2. Struggles of Past Champions
At world No. 3, Rahm is the highest-ranked of the past Memorial champions in this year’s field. And despite not really having his ‘A’ game lately, Rahm might also be the playing the best current golf of any past champion.
Here are a few of what he will be contending with:
Bryson DeChambeau: World No. 4 won the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this year, and it would be a tremendous story if he can win Jack’s event in the same year. His results have suffered since a T3 at THE PLAYERS Championship though, as he finished outside the top 35 at both The Masters and the PGA Championship. In the past week, he was heavily in the golf news, not for his play, but for a feud that has been blossoming between he and Brooks Koepka, who is not in the field this week.
Hideki Matsuyama: The 2014 Memorial was his first career victory. His first career major championship happened at this year’s Masters, so this is a successful season regardless of what else happens. He has been making nearly all his cuts, but has just two top 10s in 19 starts on the season.
From there, it drops considerably:
Patrick Cantlay: Won the 2019 Memorial, and led the FedExCup standings at one point this year, but has been in an unexplainable funk lately, with four missed cuts in his last six starts, including at both THE PLAYERS Championship and The Masters.
Jason Dufner: Could join Spieth and Matusyama as players to snap a winless drought dating back to 2017. It was this event he won that year, but the career of the former major champion (2013 PGA) has been in a freefall since the middle of last decade. He is currently 426th in the world rankings after reaching as high as 7th.
Will McGirt: Won a surprising 2016 duel over the even more anonymous Jon Curran. McGirt has played in just 8 Tour events since 2018 with nothing better than a T60. He is currently 1878th in the world rankings.
David Lingmerth: The short Swede won a 2015 playoff over former Memorial champion Justin Rose, and was once a runner-up at THE PLAYERS (2013). Injuries stalled his career, and he plays mostly on the Korn Ferry Tour now, but a few solid finishes have moved him from 1203rd to 930th in the world rankings. He is still just 33, so there could be hope yet.
Matt Kuchar: Made a run at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, an event he often plays well at, but has been a completely non-factor this year otherwise. He has misse the cut in his last five major starts.
KJ Choi: Given a pass now, since he’s 51 and plays some on the Champions Tour, but finished his regular Tour career on fumes, with just two top 10s since 2016. At 616th, he is only the third highest-ranked Choi in the world rankings.
3. Jordan Spieth’s Fragile Psyche
One of the most compelling storylines of the 2021 PGA Tour season continues to be the career resurrection of three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, who was stuck in a four-year winless bog coming into the year, with each season being worse than the last.
Spieth missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in January. From there, he started a streak where he has posted eight top 10s in 11 starts, highlighted by a win at the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio. He held several other Sunday leads, but in learning to win again, which used to come much easier for him, he was not able to hold.
That win was the 12th of his career, which is still remarkable at the age of 27. His last major victory was at the 2017 Open Championship.
Despite his hot recent play however, the state of his mental game could be in question this week at Muirfield Village. At last week’s Charles Schwab Classic, held near his hometown of Dallas, Spieth was the overwhelming crowd favorite as he held a one-stroke 54-hole lead.
Unfortunately for his legion of fans, he bogeyed three of his first four holes, and finished with a 3-over 73, which left him runner-up by one to journeyman Jason Kokrak, who had shot a pretty pedestrian round himself. Down by one going into the final hole, Spieth desperately needed to put pressure on Kokrak, but sent his approach into the water, ending his bid for a second victory of the year.
With a psyche that could be considered somewhat fragile, it is fair to wonder whether scar tissue will be an issue at Jack’s Place this week. Even with his recent struggles, he has still managed three finishes of T13 or better in his last four starts in this event. His best result was a T3 in the 2015 edition, finishing two strokes out of the playoff between David Lingmerth and Justin Rose.
4. Justin Thomas Not Looking Like JT
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is not in attendance this week in Columbus, meaning that world No. 2 Justin Thomas is the highest-ranked player in the field. A 14-time winner on Tour at just 27 years of age, Thomas got his 2021 season off to his typical great start, posting eight top 15s in nine starts before winning THE PLAYERS Championship in March.
Since that landmark win, though, Thomas has not looked like his best self. In six starts, a T13 at the Valspar Championship is his only top 20. He imploded over the weekend at The Masters, and missed the cut after opening with two rounds of 75 at the PGA Championship. He was T40 at last week’s Charles Schwab Challenge.
It is not as if Thomas has never had a bad outing or two, but this is considered a lengthy funk the amazingly consistent Alabama product. He had three rounds at Colonial where he had three bogeys or worse over a four-hole stretch, showing that he is struggling to compose himself and get back on track when he hits a high number.
Still, he is second on Tour in scoring average and first in birdie average. It seems like just a matter of time before he looks elite again.
Thomas has made seven starts at The Memorial, with a best finish of T4 in 2017, when he held the 54-hole co-lead before stumbling late. He also had a T8 and a T18 in his last three attempts.
5. Rickie Showing Signs of Life?
Among the most welcome developments two weeks ago at the PGA Championship was the T8 finish of Rickie Fowler, a man who has twice finished runner-up at The Memorial. He had been struggled enormously the past two seasons with just three combined top 10s. He had posted at least five in each of the previous eight, with two seasons in double digits (2014, 2017).
In 2021, his seven missed cuts in 18 starts is just one short of his high of eight, which he had in his rookie season on Tour. After spending considerable time in the world top 10, Fowler has fallen as low as 122nd this season, and currently sits at 101st. He did not even qualify for The Masters last month, the first major he did not play since the 2010 U.S. Open.
There are many people hoping that Rickie’s encouraging week at Kiawah Island will bring out his better game again. Still just 32 years of age, he could still win that major championship that has eluded him, although he needs to actually qualify to win. His recent history at Muirfield Village has been mostly good.
From 2017-2019 he had finishes of T2, T8, T14 respectively, and while he missed the cut last year, he did well to shoot a second-round 68 after inexplicably opening with an 81. This week should tell a lot for him.