By Norm Elrod
(CBS Pittsburgh/CBS Local) — The Memorial Tournament, held every year at Muirfield Village Golf Club, is Jack Nicklaus’s tournament. Jack built the course in the rolling hills of Ohio. Jack started the PGA Tour event to give a little something back. And everyone shows up.
While certainly a testament to the Golden Bear’s legendary status, the event now also occupies a key spot on the Tour schedule. Two weeks after the PGA Championship and two weeks before the U.S. Open, players have recovered enough from the season’s second major to prepare for the third. The $9.1 million purse, among the biggest of the non-major, non-WGC events, and the usual FedExCup point awards are also enticing.
Bryson DeChambeau comes in as defending champion, having won an exciting three-way playoff last year on a putt for birdie. It was his second win on the PGA Tour. The world’s eighth-ranked player has since won three more Tour events, though he’s currently suffering through a string of missed cuts.
The field includes other former Memorial champions, two of whom are grouped with DeChambeau in the opening rounds. Tiger Woods has five wins at Memorial on his extensive resume, the most recent from 2012. After a Masters victory that punctuated his years-long comeback, Woods, ranked fifth in the world, rested for the month leading up to the PGA Championship. Then he missed the cut at Bethpage. His presence at Muirfield Village suggests an effort to, among other things, stay sharp this time around. Justin Rose, the 2010 winner and world’s third-ranked player, rounds out the trio.
The grouping of Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth will open on the back nine directly before DeChambeau, Woods and Rose. McIlroy, currently ranked fourth, has missed the top 10 just once in his 10 outings this year. He also tends to show up at Muirfield Village. Sixth-ranked Thomas started the year strong, with four top-10s in five appearances, but has slipped since. An ailing wrist has kept him out of action since the Masters. With top 10s in his last two events, Spieth seems on the cusp of turning things around.
Another pairing to watch is Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar, who open Thursday afternoon on the front nine. Mickelson still lurks outside the top 20 in the world, and hasn’t glimpsed a top-10 finish since Pebble Beach. While not considered a contender this week, it’s also hard to count him out entirely. Fowler, ranked 10th, has been all over the place of late, climbing into the top 10 at the Masters and Wells Fargo, but sinking to T36 at the PGA Championship and missing the cut last week in Fort Worth. He traditionally plays well at Muirfield Village though, as does Kuchar, who joins him in the opening rounds. Kuchar is having a strong spring, with multiple top 10s, including second place at the RBC Heritage.
In total, the Memorial field features 12 of the top 20 players in the world. And Muirfield Village, Jack Nicklaus’s creation, is worthy of the illustrious field. Nicklaus’s goal decades ago was to bring a Masters-level tournament to central Ohio. He built the venue with that in mind. The course and the scenery are simply immaculate, and resemble Augusta National in some ways.
Muirfield Village has evolved over the years, as Nicklaus tinkers with it to keep it competitive. The par-72 layout now stretches 7,392 yards, over 400 yard longer than at its inception. But the course still favors placement over power, not allowing the Tour’s long drivers a distance advantage. Accuracy off the tee matters much more with the narrow fairways. That challenge is couched in an overwhelmingly beautiful setting. Many of the holes play downhill, with players walking uphill between holes.
Who are the favorites at the Memorial?
Rory McIlroy (10/1)
The Memorial plays to McIlroy’s strengths. And as a top-5 player riding a string of top-10 finishes, he should contend again this week. McIlroy finished T8 and T4 in his last two Memorial appearances. Look for his name near the top of the leaderboard this weekend.
Tiger Woods (12/1)
Since his return to legitimate contention, Tiger’s betting odds have seemed stronger than his actual chances of winning. That doesn’t seem to be the case this week. Woods has won the Memorial five times in his career, and could easily notch a sixth. A strong showing here would certainly help him forget his PGA Championship debacle and pay homage to the man whose career major total he’s chasing.
Patrick Cantlay (14/1)
The Memorial often crowns less than obvious champions, and Cantlay is well positioned to be the next. Ranked 15th in the world, Cantlay turned in a T9 at the Masters and a T3 at the RBC Heritage. And he finished one stroke short of the three-way playoff that determined last year’s Memorial winner.