By Pete Pappas
GolfWRX Staff Writer
The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village is one of my favorite events of the season. And not just because it’s a stone’s throw down the road from me in Dublin, Ohio, one of just two times the Tour visits the “Buckeye State.”
It’s also because Muirfield is “Jack’s Place.”
You know you’re in for something special at Muirfield immediately when you’re greeted by a larger than life bronze sculpture of the 19-time major winner Jack Nicklaus instructing a young boy on the golf swing.
The child seems to hang on Jack’s every word but also appears mischievously eager to put the ball in play.
Jack points out towards the horizon as if to instruct his mindful pupil “now before you hit the ball you need to pick a spot out there and an intermediate target too …” (referring to his meticulously famous pre-shot routine in picking primary and intermediate targets to establish aim).
When the “Golden Bear” created the Memorial in 1976 he envisioned an event that would draw the world’s top players to central Ohio. And it has not disappointed.
World No. 1 Luke Donald, World No. 2 Rory McIlroy, World No. 7 Tiger Woods (making his 13th appearance but absent since 2010), and defending champion World No. 8 Steve Stricker will all tee it up Thursday in Dublin for the 37th playing of the Memorial.
Last year Stricker shot a final round 68 but needed a couple of clutch par-saving putts at No. 16 and No. 17 to pull out a one-shot victory and hold off runner-ups Matt Kuchar and Brandt Jobe (both of whom carded final round 65s).
The field this week includes 18 of the 21 winners on Tour in 2012, 17 of the Top-20 in the FedExCup standings, and eight of the Top-10 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
“It’s on everybody’s short list of tournaments they would love to win,” said World No. 10 Justin Rose. “And that comes down to Jack Nicklaus and what he represents.”
The Memorial is one of just five tournaments given invitational status by the PGA Tour and consequently only 120 players rather than the normal 156 are in the field. The top-75 players on the previous year’s money list are guaranteed invitees.
Also making the event unique is a yearly induction ceremony and plaque presentation honoring golfers who’ve made significant contributions to the game. The special plaques are displayed prominently near the clubhouse. And this year’s inductee is eight-time major champion Tom Watson (who also won the Memorial in 1979 and 1996).
Memorable Memorial Moments
In 1976 Roger Maltbie won the inaugural Memorial Tournament defeating Hale Irwin in a sudden-death playoff, but not without a little luck. On the third playoff hole Maltbie’s approach sailed left of the green, heading straight for the gallery. But his shot miraculously hit a stake and bounced back onto the green. Maltbie salvaged par and went on to win on the next playoff hole.
In 1977 Nicklaus defeated Hubert Green by two strokes after inclement weather forced the tournament to finish on Monday.
In 1984 Nicklaus became a two-time winner of his own tournament defeating Andy Bean in a sudden-death playoff. The win turned out to be Jack’s last non-major victory of his illustrious career.
In 1994 Tom Lehman cruised to a five-shot victory over Greg Norman and established the tournament record shooting 278 (20-under).
In 2001 Woods won the Memorial for the third consecutive year dismantling Sergio Garcia and Paul Azinger by a sizable seven-stroke margin.
The House That Jack Built
Muirfield Village Golf Club is ranked as the sixth most popular course on Tour by the players. It’s also ranked as the 19th most difficult on Tour in 2011.
Muirfield features some of the fastest greens on Tour, and the spectacular par-4 448-yard finishing hole is the toughest on the course.
More than 20,000 spectators gather at No. 18 to witness the tournament’s end and the traditional Nicklaus handshake greeting to the winner walking off the green.
The Greek Syndicate
The beautiful thing about this season is anyone can win any given week. It’s also the horrendous thing about this season as it makes picking a winner all the more difficult.
Nevetheless, I remain undaunted.
With one week off I’m returning fresh and giddy with anticipation this weeks picks will pan out for me.
Here we go.
Phil Mickelson (16/1)
Mickelson bounced back at the HP Byron Nelson Championship two weeks ago finishing in seventh place with a strong final round. But he’s struggled overall this past month, particularly with inconsistent iron play.
I don’t think he finds consistency this week. He’ll have a good opening few days, but fall off over the weekend.
Stricker’s silky smooth putting stroke helped him win here last year. But he’s never played well at Muirfield before last season.
His victory here last year was driven in large part by a wildly hot streak in the middle rounds that I just don’t see him duplicating.
Donald has finished in the top-6 in five of his last seven starts. And the new World No. 1 has 15 top-10 finishes in his last 17 events. Sizzle!
Donald is on a roll and I always bet on the hot hand.
Justin Rose (18/1)
I love what Rose has done this year. Four top-10 finishes and a victory. He won here in 2010 by three shots over Rickie Fowler.
For my money he’s come closer than any player to having three wins this season. I like him and Fowler to battle it out on Sunday down the stretch.
McIlroy has two top-10 finishes at Muirfield the past two years. But he’s struggled of late.
Even with all his talent I don’t see him turning it around this week. However another poor finish might be the wake-up call he needs with the U.S. Open approaching.
Woods has never missed a cut at Muirfield. He has 10 top-10 finishes here. And he has the best scoring average at Memorial of anyone in the field.
So why pick him to finish outside the top-25?
Because I believe Woods is an absolute wreck. And he won’t be fixed until he reunites with Butch Harmon.
You heard it here first. Expect a Woods-Harmon reunion next season (I’m invoking my privilege to not reveal my confidential source).
And expect continued inconsistent and mediocre play from Woods the rest of this season (no source on this one, just common sense).
Bubba Watson (22/1)
Watson’s admittedly rusty. But he expects to “play good golf.” I think the spotlight and attention is still a learning experience for him and growing pains are forthcoming.
Watson’s great for the game. But he won’t be around this weekend.
Rickie Fowler (20/1)
People have been waiting for Rickie to break out for some time now and now that he finally has he’s a different player.
Fowler was a runner-up here in 2010.
He’s always had the talent. It was just a matter of when. Fowler picks up another win and puts himself into contention for “2012 Player of the Year.”
Groups To Watch
Kyle Stanley, Mark Wilson, Jason Day
Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley
Tiger Woods, Bill Haas, Fred Couples
Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose, Steve Sticker
Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson
Tiger Woods, Bill Haas, Freddie Couples
Ryan Moore, Spencer Levin, Greg Owen
Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott
Charley Hoffman, Ernie Els, Stewart Cink.
The Yellow Shirt
Before Fowler decided “Sing Sing Prison Orange” was a good look for Championship Sunday, and before Tiger’s “Fire Red” became a reason for competitors to cringe in fear at Woods’ mere presence…
There was Jack’s “Yellow Shirt.”
Jack’s yellow shirt of course commemorates that remarkable day in 1986 when the 46 year-old “Golden Bear” in the twilight of his career won The Masters for his sixth and final time. And in the process gave the game one of its greatest moments in history.
What Jack’s yellow shirt also symbolizes however is the even greater gift it gave to a young boy in 1968 who was diagnosed with a rare and terminal cancer at the age of 11.
That boy’s name was Craig Smith.
Craig loved golf. Jack was his idol. And yellow was Craig’s favorite color.
After Jack learned of Craig’s diagnosis he met with Craig and promised him he’d wear yellow every Sunday as his way of saying “Hello Craig.”
“I wanted to bring as much joy into the last part of that boy’s life as I could,” Jack said. “It was a mutual thing between us.”
It was mutual because Craig also wore yellow on Sundays.
Craig’s mother recalled watching Craig leaping off the sofa with excitement the first time he saw Jack wearing yellow on television, “Craig would say ‘hello to you too Jack’ when he watched Jack,” his mom said.
It was their secret, between Jack and Craig.
Tragically two years later Craig lost his courageous battle with cancer and passed away at age 13.
In 1986 Nicklaus’ game was in decline and his career on its last legs. He hadn’t won a tournament in two years. And it had been six years since he last won a major.
But something unbelievable would happen at the 1986 Masters. And many believe it was because Nicklaus decided to wear the yellow shirt on Sunday one more time.
Yellow is the color of rebirth. And Jack wore it again to inspire and honor the memory of his brave young friend with an unwavering spirit.
As Jack walked up the 18th fairway on Sunday about to win The Masters for the sixth time, he couldn’t help but believe Craig was watching from above.
“I looked up to sky and said wow, is this really happening?” Jack said.
Today the Yellow Shirt Fund exists to support pediatric cancer patients nationwide including those in Ohio being treated at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
And Jack’s “yellow shirt” more than ever still inspires us all to continue in the fight against pediatric cancer.
Tickets for the event are always some of the biggest sellers for any non-major on the PGA Tour.
Purse: $6.2 million; Winner’s share: $1.116 million
Thursday and Friday: Golf Channel 3:00 – 6:00 p.m. EST
Saturday and Sunday: NBC 3:00 – 6:00 p.m. EST
Thursday through Sunday: SiriusXM Satellite Radio 12:00 – 6:00 pm ET
Odds provided by Las Vegas PGA Tour Golf Betting Odds.
You can follow Pete on Twitter @TheGreekGrind