40 Years Later, Memorial Still Going Strong

What 50 years ago was just a dream to Jack Nicklaus is now in its 40th year as a reality. The Memorial Tournament in suburban Columbus is an integral part of the sporting calendar each year, and the Ohio State product has made it into one of the premier events in the sport of golf.

Muirfield Village Golf Club is known for its hills, but it’s not over the hill.

The spectator-friendly layout, with hills surrounding many greens to provide a stadium atmosphere and excellent views of the golf action, turned 40 a year ago. This year, starting today and running through Sunday, the links designed by legendary golfer and Ohio State product Jack Nicklaus will host the Memorial Tournament for the 40th time.

And in many ways, the tournament and the golf course in Dublin, Ohio, just northwest of Columbus are as good as ever. The Memorial has become one of the more anticipated and respected tournaments on the PGA TOUR ever year, largely because the Ohio State product Nicklaus has his hand in everything from the masterful design of the golf course to little things like making sure the players have access to the clubhouse’s legendary milkshakes.

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“I think the tournament has evolved very nicely,” Nicklaus said a year ago. “We haven’t positioned ourselves to be anything more than what we are. I think we’re a good tournament, certainly one of the top tournaments in the game. We haven’t positioned ourselves to be a major. It’s not been our goal.

“We’ve positioned ourselves to try to be a service to the game of golf, no different than what Augusta started out to do. That was sort of my guiding light to what I wanted to do.”

Nicklaus has made no bones about the fact that he’s tried to model his club and tournament after The Masters held each year at Augusta National Golf Club, and while Muirfield Village has not become a course that hosts a major tournament each year, it is a decorated track.

It is the only course on the planet to have hosted each of the top three tournaments in international team golf – the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup and the Solheim Cup – and is routinely rated among the top 100 courses in both the nation and the world.

While its great success now would seem to have been preordained, in truth, it took a major labor of love from Nicklaus and his friends to get the course off the ground. He first came up with the idea to bring the tour to central Ohio in 1964, and he brought in celebrated golf architect Pete Dye to help. Nicklaus planned to tour more than 10 plots of land but realized quickly after a visit to the site with Dye and former Ohio State quarterback and friend Pandel Savic that it was perfect.

The farmland, with its creeks and natural valleys, was purchased in 1966 but construction didn’t begin until 1972 and it took Nicklaus until 1974 to complete the course, all while continuing a career that included 18 major title wins. He celebrated finishing the project in style, playing in the first-ever round at the course and shooting a 6-under 66 that stood as the course record for nearly a decade.

“Muirfield did cost me a little. It nearly cost me a lot. But I didn’t care. It’s what I wanted to do,” Nicklaus said in a story that ran in the Memorial Tournament’s magazine last year. “I wanted to provide a great tournament to the people of Columbus who supported me, and I wanted to give something back to the game of golf.

“There was a time when it almost didn’t happen, but I managed to get through it, thanks to good people around me and my own stubbornness.”

He’s done just that. The annual tournament that began in 1976 has become a cultural touchstone in Columbus in the early summer of each year and boasts a decorated list of winners, including Nicklaus twice, Tiger Woods (five times), Tom Watson (twice), Hale Irwin (twice), Greg Norman (twice), Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, Tom Lehman, Paul Azinger, Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton and Raymond Floyd.

“You think about what’s happened over those 40 years, the high-level competition that has gone on here,” said Dan Sullivan, executive director of the tournament. “It’s a championship golf course. You have to play well in order to win here, and the top players have done that over and over again. We’re really proud of the list of champions that we’ve had.”

The latest addition to the decorated list is 2014 winner Hideki Matsuyama, the young Japanese star, who recently spoke of what it meant to earn the victory on the course in 2014.

“It’s meant a lot,” he said. “This is Mr. Nicklaus’ golf course and his tournament. What a thrill it was to win. I won here, so it’s one of my very favorite courses. But, no, it’s right up there with all the best.”

The list of winners is perhaps boosted by the fact the tournament has done everything it could to cater to the needs of the golfers, who these days all have busy worldwide travel schedules and at this time of year are pointing their games to be ready for the U.S. Open.

There’s the milkshakes, sure, and the chance to shake hands with Nicklaus after completing the win. But Nicklaus always tries to make sure things are streamlined, tweaking things every year, including a renovated locker room this year and redesigned fitness area.

“We’re trying to do the best we can to present a golf course, a golf tournament, a hospitality that would be to the level that I think they would like to come and play,” Nicklaus said Wednesday. “Not all of them come every year – there’s a lot of other places to go – but I think for the majority of the time, we’ve always had great fields and we’ve always had great competitions.”

While the tournament has pretty much remained the same – down to the trademark weather delays – there have been enhancements. The tournament’s partnership with Nationwide and Nationwide Children’s Hospital has led to the establishment of the annual Legends Luncheon, which raised $1 million for the hospital this spring. Of late, the Memorial Tournament sponsors an annual concert, and a new addition this year was the FORE! Miler road race last Thursday in which thousands of runners took part.

On the course, there have been changes, as well, as the course has been lengthened repeatedly over the years. The most recent major change to the course came in 2011 when Nicklaus redid the 16th hole, a par-3 in which a lake was added in front of the green, while a new back tee was added to the 18th hole before the Presidents Cup in 2013.

Such changes have helped the tournament stand the test of time, exactly what Nicklaus envisioned more than 40 years ago when he first played what has become his signature course in his hometown city.

“It’s kind of amazing,” Nicklaus said. “Forty years, it seems like a long time – and, frankly, it is. But the golf course has done well.”

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