As the U.S. Open quickly approaches, the best of the best will be in attendance together one more time before they take on Shinnecock Hills.
That would be this week at The Memorial Tournament, Jack Nicklaus’ brainchild which annually draws one of the most talented fields among non-majors, and this year is no different.
Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed, Justin Rose, and others headline an incredible group attempting a Muirfield Village triumph.
Here are some of the storylines that warrant extra attention:
1. DUFNER DEFENDS
From the inaugural Memorial Tournament, held in 1974, through 2016, the only native Ohioan to win the Ohio-based event was Jack Nicklaus, who did it twice.
Now, after last year’s tournament, that list now comprises Nicklaus and Cleveland’s Jason Dufner.
That Memorial victory, the fifth of Dufner’s career, was a showcase of resiliency. The 41-year-old jumped out to a big lead when he opened Muirfield Village with a pair of 7-under 65s. Sadly, Dufner completely came off the rails on Saturday, carding bogeys on 2, 3, 4, and 5 in what ended up as a painful 5-over 77.
Four strokes off the lead going into Sunday, however, Dufner regrouped brilliantly… well, on the back nine anyway. On the front he had three birdies, but after each he recorded a bogey before his next birdie. The back nine, though, he made one great iron shot after another, and four birdies combined with zero bogeys later, Dufner had completed the stunning comeback, beating Rickie Fowler and Anirban Lahiri by three strokes.
Winning with a score as high as a third-round 77 is unheard of. Since 1983, the 77 from Dufner was the second-worst single round score of anyone to win a non-major. The only higher score from an eventual winner came from Kenny Knox at the 1986 Honda Classic. Knox shot a third-round 80, but it came in blistering winds, and 37 of the 72 players to make the cut shot in the 80s. It was a heck of an outlier on a day that probably should have been called early.
Dufner has not won again in the past 12 months, and has been hit-or-miss as of late. Both of his top-10s this season have come in his last four starts: a runner-up finish teamed with Pat Perez at the Zurich Classic and an impressive T5 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
The other two starts? A T42 at the Wells Fargo Championship and a missed cut at last week’s Fort Worth Invitational. He opened both those events with a 68, but struggled badly afterwards.
Dufner has a reputation for being a quiet, unassuming guy, and nobody would be shocked if he was hoping to come into this year’s Memorial a little under-the-radar.
However, the tournament committee put an end to that wish when they paired him with Tiger Woods and Justin Rose for the first two rounds. When someone plays with Tiger, everything they do is in front of as many eyes as can fit behind the ropes. If Dufner goes back-to-back, it will happen with a tremendous amount of attention.
2. THOMAS’ FIRST START AS NO. 1
Only 25 years old and with barely 100 PGA starts under his belt, Justin Thomas already has a phenomenally impressive list of accomplishments: 8 victories, 1 major championship (the 2017 PGA Championship), 32 top 10s, a round of 59, a plethora of scoring records, a President’s Cup victory, a FedExCup Championship, and a PGA Player of the Year award.
It would be almost insulting to say that he is on a Hall of Fame track, because it understates how much he has accomplished in such a short amount of time. He might already be an all-time great.
His latest accomplishment, however, might be his best yet. Thomas has been outspoken in his desire to achieve the top position on the Official World Golf Rankings.
At THE PLAYERS Championship two weeks ago, the man who is good enough to simply be known as ‘JT’ accomplished that goal, as a T11 finish combined with Dustin Johnson’s failure to finish inside the top 11 meant that Thomas became the new No. 1 after Johnson had held it for the previous 65 weeks.
It may have been a little anticlimactic; Thomas probably would have preferred that he captured the No. 1 spot in a victory, rather than in a finish that is not special by his standards, but regardless, he is the 21st player in Tour history to reach that OWGR pinnacle.
Now, JT gets to play a competitive event for the first time as the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer when he tees up this week at The Memorial Tournament. Close friend Rickie Fowler and Masters Champion Patrick Reed will get a front-row seat over the first two days at Muirfield Village, as they have been paired with Thomas.
The Memorial Tournament is not one of Thomas’ eight career victories, but he has played well in the event before. With a 67-71-69 start, he was in third place at the 54-hole mark, four strokes behind Daniel Summerhays.
A so-so Sunday 72 was more than enough to catch Summerhays, who shot a 78, but was still four strokes short of champion Jason Dufner. Thomas finished T4, trailing just Dufner, Fowler, and Anirban Lahiri.
That was the lone highlight of his Muirfield Village tenure; he placed T37 in his 2014 debut and missed the cut in 2015 and 2016, but there is no doubting how much he has improved since.
He will be a favorite this week, if not THE favorite, and with a win, Thomas would become the first player to hit three victories in the 2018 season. He won the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in October and the Honda Classic in February. He has three other top 10s on the year, including a runner-up finish at the WGC-Mexico Championship where a 62-64 weekend became his latest scoring record.
3. TIGER’S RETURN TO MUIRFIELD VILLAGE
As is the case at many tournaments, Tiger Woods is the Memorial Tournament’s all-time wins leader. Five of Tiger’s 79 career wins have come at Muirfield Village, with the most recently being a two-stroke triumph over Andres Romero and Rory Sabbatini in 2012. Those five victories are two more than Kenny Perry, and three more than Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin, Greg Norman, and Tom Watson.
Woods has made few fireworks since, however. He finished T65 in 2013, an event where he was coming in on a WIN-WIN-T4-WIN four tournament streak. In 2015, he placed even worse, a solo-71st place finish that included an unfathomable third-round 85 (no, that is not a typo).
Tiger did not start the 2014, 2016, or 2017 Memorials, due to the series of injuries that plagued his career from 2014-2017.
For the first time since 2013, when Tiger had won THE PLAYERS Championship in his previous start, he has reason for some considerable optimism coming into The Memorial. Since returning to professional golf from a lengthy back surgery-related absence, the verdicts on Tiger have been mostly good.
Most importantly, he has stayed healthy, but in addition, he has some quality finishes. In March-April, he excited his enormous fanbase with a 12-T2-T5 three-start streak. He was significantly less impressive in his next two starts, with one of those being a T32 at The Masters, but Tiger again dazzled in his most recent start, a T11 at the always-difficult PLAYERS Championship that included a 65-69 weekend.
Tiger has struggled to hit fairways since his return, but has been surprisingly sharp everywhere else. He currently ranks 14th on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green, 7th in strokes gained: around-the-green, and 10th in strokes gained: total.
The consensus seems to be that he is close to his first win since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and that win could very well come this week at a course he has historically dominated. At the very least, he is guaranteed to be the tournament’s biggest attraction.
4. HEAT CHECK: JUSTIN ROSE
After a ridiculous tear where Justin Rose had 13 top 10s in 15 events worldwide, with three victories mixed in, he looked mortal-ish for four weeks, making few waves in a T52, T12, T19, T23 stretch.
If there was any doubt about the state of his current game, however, it was obliterated in a tee-to-green clinic at the Fort Worth Invitational last weekend. With two rounds of 66 and two other rounds of 64 at the usually-difficult Colonial Country Club, Rose reached 20-under for the week, and only Brooks Koepka (-17) was sort of even in the same ballpark.
The victory, which was the ninth PGA Tour triumph of Rose’s career, moved him to No. 3 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and reasserted himself as one of the elites on Tour.
Rose did not play the past two editions of The Memorial, but has a thoroughly impressive recent record in the event. He won by three strokes in 2010, finished 8th in both 2012 and 2013, and in his last appearance, in 2015, he was the runner-up, losing a playoff to surprise champion David Lingmerth.
Now, he is back at Muirfield Village and in tremendous form. It is difficult to go back-to-back on the PGA Tour, but Rose is unlikely to allow his Fort Worth domination to distract him this week.
5. DAY’S MEMORIAL BREAKTHROUGH?
Columbus-area resident Jason Day has professed his love for the blossoming region in recent years, and is even a member at Muirfield Village, but his history in the event is surprisingly awful for a first-class player.
The 30-year-old native-Aussie Day has just one top 20 in his Memorial history, and that was a T15 last year, where he still dug himself an early hole with a first-round 75. It was encouraging that he played the last three rounds so much better, but a great amount of the pressure had been off by then.
Still, Day is among the favorites coming into this year’s edition. The former World No. 1 seems to be back in his best form in 2018. He has two wins on the season: one at Torrey Pines in late January, and the other earlier this month at the Wells Fargo Championship.
In addition, he placed T5 in his most recent start, at THE PLAYERS Championship. There is no reason his game should not match Muirfield, or any course for that matter, and it will be surprising if this week does not end with Day’s best career finish in the event.
His short game has been especially impressive, as he leads the Tour in strokes gained: putting, like he did in his three-win 2016 season, and he is third in strokes gained: around-the-green. He will have plenty of opportunity to showcase his creativity around the fantastically difficult greens around Jack’s Place.