What is it about the Memorial Tournament that makes it so special? So, well, memorable?
Think about it.
Anyone who has been there must have been in awe of the sheer beauty of the Muirfield Village Golf Club course – whether in its original state in 1976, when the tournament started on a two-year-old course, or as it is now, still perfectly manicured and gallery-friendly.
It’s a different layout than originally designed and built because founder Jack Nicklaus has continuously tweaked or revamped it. Many holes play longer. The course originally played at 6,978 yards, but has been extended to 7,352 yards from the championship tees.
Patrons are apt to be star-struck as they watch the best of the best tread the course and struggle with the demons of golf that cause their balls to “find” a sand trap or water hazard, to miss a green or the bottom of the cup on a putt that looked destined to go in.
Patrons can see the holes-in-one, the eagles and all of Tiger Woods’ shots as he plays before throngs that jam every fairway, just as they did when Nicklaus was in his prime.
They cheered their home-grown superstar to two victories in his own tournament, in 1977 and 1984.
But fond memories are a person’s own – about the golf he or she saw, the natural beauty of the course and surroundings, the enjoyment of being among the thousands watching at the practice range or cramming paths along 18 holes that thread through nature’s contoured hills and valleys on a large part of the 220 acres the Club covers.
The recollections of journalists and volunteers who are or have been embedded in the tournament give a wide perspective of memorable golf and of the well-honed event that’s a highlight on the PGA TOUR.
Kaye Kessler, the tournament’s 2002 Memorial Golf Journalism Award recipient – an annual honor bestowed during ceremonies that also honor golf luminaries – has been to every Memorial and continues to attend as a writer for national publications. Nicklaus’ 1984 win, which came in a playoff with Andy Bean, is among a litany of highlights packed into his memory.
Nicklaus’ victory came after he put his drive on the 17th hole on the deck of a home. He managed to make bogey, but tied Bean, who missed a crucial putt on 18 to force the playoff. Bean missed a 3-foot “sure thing” on the third playoff hole to end the match.
George Lehner, former WTVN radio sportscaster, remembers, too. He describes Bean as a “gentle giant.”
“I remember feeling sorry for him,” Lehner says. “Nobody was rooting for him. He was playing Jack in his hometown. He had no chance.”
Kessler, a longtime sports writer for the now-defunct Columbus Citizen-Journal; Bob Baptist, veteran tournament reporter for The Columbus Dispatch; and Lehner all mention Tom Watson’s second round in 1979 in bitter weather conditions that had struck the first two days.
“It was the most unforgettable of all the Memorials … and all the golf tournaments I’ve covered in 67 years for one reason – and one round,” Kessler says.
He describes golfers who “looked like mummies in rain suits, ski caps, gloves and mufflers as winds upwards of 30 mph chilled temperatures to 13 and rain and sleet pounded much of the day.” Eventual winner Watson endured, undaunted in the conditions, by shooting a 69, which gave him a four-stroke lead.
Baptist remembers Watson saying before the round, “I don’t think I’m going out there today.”
The weather’s always a topic, a concern or a joke, depending who’s talking about it. While it has delayed play several times, it has only abbreviated two tournaments. The first was in 1980, when Greg Norman won after 54 holes.
Baptist recalls from that year that Fred Couples, tied for the lead on the third day, lost his drive in long rough on 18, took double bogey and finished tied for third. Couples skipped the tournament for many years afterward, but returned to win in 1998.
Woods keeps coming back, of course. He has won five times, most recently last year when he tied Nicklaus’ record of 73 wins on Tour as Nicklaus watched. Woods draws the masses who want to see shots like a 249-yard two iron shot that led to an eagle and a three-shot swing to go ahead of playing partner Paul Azinger.
Afterwards, Azinger said, “I don’t have that shot,” Baptist recalls. Not many do.
“Weather be damned, though, Muirfield Village continues to be possibly the most pristine course on Tour after the Masters,” Kessler says. He lauds “the operation, the treatment of player and the patrons.”
“The memorable thing for me is how we were able to pull it together so it would be ready for the pros to play golf,” says Alphonse P. Cincione, a Muirfield Village Golf Club member and former chairman of a committee of volunteers with varied duties, the main being trash collection.
He cites courtesy cars, babysitting and sightseeing for wives among the amenities the tournament provides players and their families, and credits Nicklaus for instituting them.
“Everything has to happen ‘right away,’” Cincione says. “It ain’t easy.”
Jim Nolan, a former club member, was volunteer chairman for 33 years, dating to the first tournament.
“When you’re working, you don’t get to see much” of the tournament, Nolan says.
Still, he was standing green-side in 1993 on 18 when Azinger hit what has become arguably the best-remembered shot of any Memorial. Playing with his friend Payne Stewart, Azinger holed his third shot from a bunker for a birdie to tie Stewart. Photographs of the jubilant Azinger on his knees, holding his club and visor skyward, have forever defined Azinger and the tournament’s reputation for spellbinding moments.
Stewart, whose third shot also was from a trap, had left an 8-foot putt, but missed. He made double bogey while Azinger won.
During ceremonies beside the 18th green every year, golf luminaries are honored “from Bobby Jones to (Ben) Hogan to (Sam) Snead, Babe Zaharias, Judy Bell, Seve Ballesteros, ad infinitum,” Kessler says. Nicklaus, Stewart and Watson are among them.
This year, Raymond Floyd will be honored on Tuesday, May 28. His bronze plaque will join an array of 54 others permanently displayed in a park-like setting near the first tee. Over the years, Bob Hope, President Gerald Ford and President George H.W. Bush have appeared and/or played in pro-am events.
Lehner relishes having made friends with some tour golfers, or at least getting to know them personally. Among others, he mentions Fuzzy Zoeller, as a friend, and praises Tom Lehman as “a fine Christian, one of the classiest guys on tour.”
“The fact that this is such a community event gets lost,” Lehner says, noting that it “brings people together” from all walks. So many people come into one’s life during tournament week, from social events to player interviews, he notes.
“It’s in the top three for virtually every player on Tour – a remarkable tournament that has the delightful habit of getting better every year,” says Kessler.
Duane St. Clair is a contributing editor. Feedback welcome at email@example.com.