It’s a home game! After a sleepy post-Masters stretch, one of the best non-major events of the year has got the juices flowing again. It helps that I’ve attended this event in some capacity 22 of the last 25 years, but there’s a reason it remains one of my favorite weeks.
Growing up in Dublin, I had no idea that this tournament was a special one on the tour. I think I just assumed all events were that good. Having had the opportunity to see how a dozen or so other tournaments are run and how those venues play, I now have a full appreciation for how spoiled I was as a kid to get to see such a great field at such a tremendous site every year.
Muirfield was the site of Jack Nicklaus’ first career Open Championship, and became the name of his pride and joy in Dublin, Ohio, a small suburb of Columbus. Muirfield Village Golf Club was built in 1976 and designed by the Columbus native, and has played host to this event since then. My family set up shop in Muirfield Village in 1992, and my parents still live there today.
The field is loaded. The featured groups are stacked:
Two weeks out from Shinnecock, guys typically show up to this event primed and ready for the summer stretch. In 2016, the purse was jacked up from $6.2 million to $8.5 million. It’s now $8.9 million, and the winner of the event is granted a three-year exemption, as opposed to a two-year pass for regular events. Add in the fact this is one of the five invitational events on the schedule, one of the leaders in player hospitality, and on one of the best tour courses of the year, and you officially have a big boy event.
It may be blasphemous to say, but Muirfield Village may be the closest thing on the tour to Augusta National. Nicklaus admits that Augusta was a huge influence on the design, and to this day, the tournament is run in a similar fashion to the Masters. Like Augusta, the course is known as a second-shot golf course. It’s defined by its lush green grass, elegant water hazards, and underrated elevation changes that can’t be appreciated until you see them in person. The similarities on the back nine get a little bit creepy to the point where it almost feels as if Jack used Muirfield Village as an excuse to remind you of his six Masters titles.
Both the 12th and the 16th holes look and play like replicas of the same holes at Augusta, with the Muirfield Village ones playing longer and more difficult (the 16th green still doesn’t hold balls nearly as well as the other greens, seven years after the hole was redone).
Those two examples are the easiest to illustrate visually, but that is not where they end. At both courses, the first hole is a long, difficult, dogleg right par 4 that is protected by fairway bunkers to the right. The third holes are each short par-4’s that don’t require a driver. The fourth holes are long par-3’s that serve as one of the most non-descript holes at both courses. The 17th is a long, straight away par-4 on both courses, and the 18th is a long, dogleg right par-4 that chutes straight up the hill toward the clubhouse. The par-5’s are all reachable, and the course is ALWAYS being tinkered with – lengthening, adding/moving bunkers, resurfacing the greens. Muirfield is Jack’s lego set.
After a short spin around the course on Tuesday, it was easy to note that some trees are missing. I’m not sure if those are intentional removals or if they came down in storms, but the most notable was the one that hung over the front right of the par-5 11th green.
The spring in the midwest was brutal (it snowed twice in Dublin in April!), so it’s not surprising that the course is playing soft. With more weather on the way this week, I can’t picture it drying out, so it’s safe to expect some low scores.
With the large feline back in town for the first time in three years, the buzz around the event seems back. His last go around was unforgettable to those that witnessed, as he limped in with an 85 on Saturday, which stands as his worst round as a professional. I continue to be amazed that we are watching a healthy (and happy!) Tiger Woods, competing at the highest level of professional golf. Considering all that he has overcome (many of it self-inflicted, but still), and despite all the coverage he gets, I think this comeback is being underrated.
*Stephen A. Smith voice*
HOWEVA! I’ll be infinitely more impressed and more confident in him going forward once we see some success on a course other than a flat Florida layout. In his four starts in the Sunshine State, his worst finish was a solo 12th at the Honda Classic (accompanied by a T2 at Valspar, T5 at Bay Hill, and a T11 at the Players). His four starts outside of Florida are an MC, T23, T32, and a T55.
Muirfield Village is definitely more similar to Quail Hollow and Augusta in terms of elevation change than it is anything in Florida. How well will his body hold up going and down hills, chopping out of (low key) thicc rough (seriously, guys were losing balls in the rough during practice rounds), and potential starts and stops with weather? He’s obviously got a ton of great history here on his side, but it’ll be interesting to see how he fares out here in this phase of his career. If he passes this test, it’s time to start talking about him for Shinnecock. But until he proves that, I have a hard time believing he’ll be a factor in two weeks on Long Island.
– Trey Mullinax teed it up with JT on Tuesday in a practice round. JT went first and pounded a ball down the first fairway. As soon as he hit it, Mullinax goes, “I am so glad you went first. I was getting ready to hit to that fairway,” as he pointed up the 9th. I would have paid to see that happen.
– Robert Streb is just like you and me. This during Tuesday’s practice round:
Robert Streb, professional golfer. pic.twitter.com/eXMRWMgDh6
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) May 29, 2018
– The U.S. Women’s Open is at Shoal Creek this week, and despite some torrential downpours, the USGA has stated that they will play the ball down. Mud ball alert! I get that the USGA wanted to stick to their guns regarding making the U.S. Open the toughest ultimate test in golf, but this seems a bit reckless. If you’re going to take the event to a golf course whose soil presents this issue, it’s pretty easily solved by letting players play it up in the short grass. That makes for a much better competition than watching players guess which way the mud is going to make their ball fly. The players already lost an entire day of preparation with the course closed on Tuesday (and some even took their talents to Top Golf to get some reps in).
– The ROLEX Series moves on in Europe with the Italian Open with Fleetwood, Noren, Molinari, Poulter, Fitz, Hatton, and RCB headlining the field.
– After the U.S. Open passes, the Euro Tour becomes the much more interesting story for the next several months, with the French, Irish, and Scottish Opens leading up to the Open Championship. And I’m not just saying this to appease the Butt Hurt Nation of Europeans that did not care for me pointing out that Wentworth hands out an astronomical amount of world ranking points despite pulling a weaker field than the Fort Worth Invitational. I’m (now) aware that the European Tour designates this event as a flagship event, which is why it has so many points attached to it. But therein lies the exact problem. The OWGR are biased towards all tours but the PGA TOUR, and that’s just a fact at this point (seriously read the link before sliding in the mentions). I could go through and dig up more examples, but in that essay Broadie outlines numerous examples of this bias to the point where I don’t understand how anyone could argue otherwise.