Not even two weeks removed from the PGA Championship, and the PGA Tour will already be seeing an elite field tee it up.
That is because we are coming up on the tournament immediately proceeding Memorial Day weekend, the always-anticipated one hosted by PGA Tour legend, and arguably golf’s greatest player of all time Jack Nicklaus: The Memorial Tournament Presented By Nationwide.
Nicklaus founded The Memorial in 1976, and has held it each year at the course he designed for the event, Muirfield Village Golf Club, the crown golfing jewel of the Columbus, Ohio area where he was born and raised.
Nicklaus is such a respected name in the world of golf, that the best of the best do not hesitate to make the trek each year. Outside of the majors and WGC events, The Memorial has a well-earned reputation of drawing one of the strongest fields in golf.
Jack himself is a two-time event winner, and while the 79-year-old is long removed from his competitive golf days, he takes his hosting duties seriously and remains a prominent figure in the tournament.
Headlining the event, as he does most years, is five-time Memorial Champion Tiger Woods, whose last two outings were major championships, one of which (The Masters) he won to sneak within three of Jack’s all-time major wins record. Others to watch especially closely include Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Jason Day, and defending champion Bryson DeChambeau.
An event that has seen especially thrilling conclusions in recent years is prime for one of its best editions yet.
Tournament: The Memorial Tournament
Dates: May 30-June 2, 2019
Where: Dublin, Ohio
Course: Muirfield Village Golf Club
Distance: Par 72, 7,392 yards
Architect: Jack Nicklaus/Desmond Muirhead
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,638,000
Defending Champion: Bryson DeChambeau
Top-10 Betting Favorites: Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Patrick Cantlay, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler, Gary Woodland, Hideki Matsuyama.
1. DeChambeau Defends
In just his second attempt at Muirfield Village, Bryson DeChambeau showed impressive resilience when late struggles, including a bogey on 18, dropped him into a playoff that he won anyway, knocking out Kyle Stanley (who birdied four holes in a row down the stretch) and Byeong Hun An in extra holes.
It was the second career victory for the then 24-year-old and the first win of what ended up being a four-victory season. If the SMU product is going to repeat, however, he will need to play much, much better than he has as of late.
Optimists would point out that DeChambeau won a year ago coming in poorly, having finished T37 and T42 in his two previous starts, but this year he is coming off three consecutive missed cuts, and he has not finished better than T20 in an event since mid-February.
2. Tiger in the Field
The newest Tiger-mania that exploded after his Masters win fell a little flat after he missed the cut at the PGA Championship, but Tiger Woods is still easily the headliner in Dublin this week. The Memorial has been a Tiger staple his entire, so it is not surprising that he entered the field again, but it is refreshing to see him in a “regular” event after he did not play any between The Masters and the PGA Championship, something he has perhaps-justifiably received considerable criticism for.
This has been one of his best tournaments; his five titles are the all-time record (more than double the man who created the event) and his first three titles came in three consecutive years (1999-2001) and were won by a combined 14 strokes. He has played the event very poorly since his last victory in 2012, but has the course knowledge to get into the mix again.
A year ago, in one of the stranger statistical anomalies in recent golf memory, Tiger led the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green, but still only finished T23. That was the result of an especially poor putting week where he finished 72nd in strokes gained: putting and shockingly missed SEVEN putts from inside five feet.
While his putting has been very up-and-down since his re-return to professional golf, that kind of performance on the greens feels very unlikely to happen again. Just one victory short of Sam Snead’s all-time record, winning at Jack’s place would feel extra appropriate this year.
3. More Spieth Troubles
Jordan Spieth, the 11-time PGA Tour winner and three-time major champion, is playing much better over his last three starts than he has in the past year, during his surprising slump, but he is still struggling badly to put four good rounds together.
His T3 at the PGA Championship involved a poor weekend when he was in contention and the same thing happened at the Charles Schwab Challenge a week ago, when he came into the final round in second place, but proceeded to not card a birdie until his final hole and finish T8.
Spieth has been all over in this event, but could really make a statement this week if he were able to contend and stay in contention.
4. JT’s Back
The PGA Championship just over a week ago nearly became the first event in PGA Tour history to include the entire top 100 in the world rankings, until Justin Thomas had to withdraw with a wrist injury. He feels good enough to make his return at The Memorial, although that wrist will likely still be protected.
In the meantime, Thomas will be one of the biggest wildcards in the field. He has yet to win in 2019 after winning three times a year ago – and five times the year before, but if he’s healthy, he still has the Tour’s fourth best scoring average, leads in birdie average, and is second in strokes gained: tee-to-green, the latter being a very telling stat for success.
Muirfield Village is the epitome of a shotmaker’s course and Thomas is the epitome of a shot-maker, so the 26-year-old cannot be forgotten about. JT finished T8 here last year, after finishing T4 the year prior.
5. Struggling Stars
The week after a major is often a struggle for those elites who put so much into majors, but it is shocking how many great players are coming into The Memorial off a poor stretch of outings.
DeChambeau was mentioned earlier for missing the cut at last week’s Charles Schwab Classic, but those falling below the cut line also included Xander Schauffele, Rickie Fowler, and Kevin Kisner, while Justin Rose (T58), Byeong Hun An (68), Matthew Fitzpatrick (T64), and Daniel Berger (T53) were among those who finished poorly.
2017 champion Jason Dufner is also having a nightmare season, and 2014 winner Hideki Matsuyama has been unable to take the step forward that was expected.
Will one of them bust out of their slump, or will we see a first-time PGA Tour winner like we did in 2014, 2015, and 2016?
6. What Happened to Joaquin Niemann?
A year ago was nearly the coronation to greatness for then 19-year-old Chilean Joaquin Niemann, who held the 36-hole lead in Dublin before finishing T6. A progression was expected to continue for the ridiculously talented former amateur superstar in 2019, but he is suffering from a sophomore slump.
In 18 starts this season, Niemann has just one top-10 and that was back in November. In the 2019 calendar year, he has yet to finish an event inside the top 30, which is shocking given his immense talent.
Could he put it back together at Muirfield Village? Maybe, but he would have to figure out something with his putter. He currently ranks 203rd on Tour in strokes gained: putting, and those missed opportunities are a reason why he barely ranks inside the top 200 in scoring average.
Niemann is likely to win many times on Tour, and given what he did a year ago, this is a week where he probably deserve extra attention.
|10||Jason Day||16||22-1||23, 24, 5, 61|
|9||Bryson DeChambeau||8||28-1||MC, MC, MC. 29|
|8||Justin Rose||3||16-1||58, 29, 3, MC|
|7||Hideki Matsuyama||32||22-1||16, 23, 31, 32|
|6||Xander Schauffele||9||25-1||MC, 16, 63, 2|
|5||Rickie Fowler||10||22-1||MC, 36, 4, 9|
|4||Matt Kuchar||12||18-1||8, 2, 12, 7|
|3||Tiger Woods||5||11-1||MC, 1, 5, 30|
|2||Rory McIlroy||4||9-1||8, 8, 21, 9|
|1||Patrick Cantlay||15||16-1||3, 3, 9, 24|
Top Sleeper: J.J. Spaun
Xander Schauffele gets most of the attention among alumni of San Diego State University, but this is one week where another former Aztec, J.J. Spaun should not be forgotten.
Spaun does not have a stellar record in this event, missing the cut a year ago after withdrawing from the tournament in his prior attempt, but Muirfield Village is one of the biggest “feel” courses on Tour, and Spaun absolutely has the kind of tee-to-green game required to thrive here.
Still looking for career victory No. 1, this event featured three consecutive first-time Tour winners in 2014 (Hideki Matsuyama), 2015 (David Lingmerth), and 2016 (William McGirt), and Spaun, who has recently broken out of a slump that plagued a considerable part of his season, could very well be the next.
Spaun By the Numbers: OWGR: 148, FedExCup: 84, Starts/Cuts Made: 18/13
Hole of the Week
No.16, Muirfield Village Golf Club
Par 3, 201 yards
2018 average: 3.14 (second toughest)
It wasn’t that long ago that Jack Nicklaus described No.16 as nothing more than “a nice way to get from 15 green to 17 tee.”
In other words, nothing special – especially when held up against the set of pivotal holes that existed on either side of the 16th.
No longer. No.16 now stands as an annual rival to Muirfield Village’s dramatic 18th in terms of most difficult. Last year, it was the toughest par-3 on the entire PGA Tour – including the majors – and ranked 10th overall.
With the 2013 Presidents Cup slated for Muirfield Village, Nicklaus determined that he didn’t want matches ending on something of a weak hole. The green was repositioned and a pond inserted front and left of the putting surface, creating a visual challenge for the golfer.
The new hole also has shown a flair for the dramatic, most notably Tiger Woods’ chip-in on the way to the 2013 Memorial title.
2018 Memorial Scores: no aces, 51 birdies, 267 pars, 57 bogeys, 12 double bogeys, 5 higher
The Memorial Honors Judy Rankin
One of the greatest features of The Memorial Tournament is its annual tradition of choosing a former golfer to honor with a ceremony and a plaque that gets placed near the clubhouse.
The first honoree was Bobby Jones, and other greats have included Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Babe Zaharias, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Payne Stewart, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Hale Irwin, and Annika Sorenstam.
Nicklaus himself was even the honoree in 2000, the year of Tiger Woods’ second tournament victory.
This year’s honoree is Judy Rankin.
Rankin, now 74 years old, will be the 10th female honoree of The Memorial. She won 26 times on the LPGA Tour, captained two Solheim Cup teams, and is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. In the 35 years since her retirement, Rankin has become a prominent name in the golf commentary television world.
Stat of the Week
0 and 4
In the 20-year span from 1993 to 2013, The Memorial did not once need a playoff to determine a winner. For comparison, the PGA Championship hosted seven playoffs in that span.
However, that trend has sharply turned in recent years as four of the past five Memorial Tournaments have been decided in overtime, beginning with Hideki Matsuyama’s playoff win over Kevin Na in 2014. In 2015, David Lingmerth needed extra holes to upset Justin Rose.
The 2016 edition featured one of the most anonymous playoffs in recent memory, with William McGirt ousting Jon Curran in extras, and then last year, DeChambeau’s Memorial triumph was decided on the 74th hole.
As one of the most respected names in the history of golf, Jack Nicklaus’ gift to the golf world and to a central Ohio community that embraced him has exploded into one of the most must-see events outside of the majors.
The Memorial continuously draws a very strong field, and a even bigger crowd, the latter a testament to a Muirfield Village course design that made fan experience a priority.
First kicking off in 1976, just two years after Muirfield Village was built, the inaugural edition of The Memorial was a brutal battle with an even-par champion, Roger Maltbie, who won in a playoff over Hale Irwin. The following year featured the first event victory of tournament founder Nicklaus, who would also win the 1984 edition.
Other notable winners include Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Irwin, Greg Norman, Paul Azinger, Tom Lehman, Vijah Singh, Fred Couples, Ernie Els, and Tiger Woods.
Tiger holds the tournament win record with five. The only other player with more than the two wins accumulated by Nicklaus is Kenny Perry, who has three.
Did You Know
Built as a way for Jack Nicklaus to give back to his hometown, Muirfield Village Golf Club celebrates its 46th edition this year as host of the Memorial Tournament. It also holds the distinction as the only place that has welcomed all three match-play showcases in U.S. professional golf.
Muirfield Village was the stage for the pivotal 1987 Ryder Cup, in which Europe captured its first win on U.S. soil behind a group that became the continent’s nucleus. Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabal and Ian Woosnam would combine for 18 major titles.
Things were much better for U.S. hopes at the 1998 Solheim Cup, when Dottie Pepper and Juli Inkster sparked a 16-12 American victory, and the 2013 Presidents Cup as Tiger Woods won four of five matches in an 18 ½-15 ½ U.S. triumph.
“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.
“First I ‘see’ where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes and I ‘see’ the ball going there: it’s part, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing.
“Then there is this sort of fadeout, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images to reality.”
– Jack Nicklaus, founder and host of The Memorial Tournament
Jeff Shain contributed to this column.