The Memorial Tournament: Course InsightThis week the PGA Tour returns to Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio for the 42nd playing of the Memorial Tournament. Muirfield always attracts the strongest collections of marquee names, and seven of the top-10 players from the Official World Golf Ranking are in the field. No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 3 Jason Day, No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama (2014 Memorial champion), and No. 7 Jordan Spieth lead a contingent of 120 players that also includes all 10 of the top-10 players from the FedEx Cup Standings.
Everything about the Memorial is prestigious. The name of the course gives a nod to the game’s origins, where the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers composed golf’s original 13 rules. Muirfield’s design draws inspiration from Augusta National and Bobby Jones. And of course the tournament host is Jack Nicklaus, and his stamp on the course is seen everywhere. The joke around here is that Muirfield is Jack’s “other wife,” and he even gave Barbara a necklace with the inscription “to my other gal” when the tournament was founded 41 years ago.
Approach view walking up the hill to the 17th green
The 7,392 yard, par-72 Muirfield track is built to suit a player who can hit the long ball and shape shots, but that’s not to say it’s a power course. Above all else, it’s a placement course rewarding courage and finesse. The terrain is dramatic and lush with rolling hillsides, snaking creeks, uneven fairways, and most shots playing downhill. A vast majority of holes feature doglegs and elevated tees or shots played into a valley. Numerous dogwood, beech, and hickory tree lines can thwart the longest hitters, and leave them with no clear shot to the green.
Water actively comes into play on nine holes, usually flanking the fairways and fronting the greens. Clusters of strategically placed and challenging bunkers threaten serious trouble off the tee and on approach. Greens are fast, small, and many are multi-tiered and set diagonally from the line of play requiring precise distance and location control. But while Muirfield’s greens are statistically some of the most difficult to hit on Tour, the good news is players who do find the green are usually rewarded with great scoring opportunities.
Muirfield’s par-3, 184-yard 12th hole looks a lot like Augusta’s No. 12, and its potential for disaster is similar. Last year it played as the fourth most difficult hole giving up 73 birdies while dishing out 95 bogeys or worse. The tee shot is played entirely over water to a two-tiered green that’s protected by bunkers in the front right and back left.
The collection of par-5 holes at Muirfield are among the most demanding and unique anywhere. No. 5 is 527 yards long with a creek that cuts across the fairway at about 300 yards from the tee and then bisects the remaining fairway all the way to the green. No. 7 is a 563-yard double-dogleg that’s reachable in two by only the longest hitters and features a green protected on all sides by three bunkers and a ravine. No. 11 is 567 yards long and the most difficult of the four. A creek meanders across the right-to-left sloping fairway near the landing zone, and then again in front of an elevated green that’s one of the smallest on the course. And although the 529 yard 15th hole gives up a lot of birdies, potential disaster awaits for players inclined to gamble with two deep bunkers flanking the green and a steep slope protecting the front.
GPS View of Hole No. 16 from the 18Birdies App
The gauntlet of three finishing holes on Nos. 16, 17, and 18 are pivotal, and last year were the three most difficult holes on the course. No. 16 is a 201 yard, par-3 with a pond guarding the entire left side of the green, and bunkers protecting the front, right, and back. Miss this green and the ball will generally find either sand or water. Last year the 16th gave up fewer birdies (44) and more bogeys or worse (108) than any hole on the course.
No. 17 is a 478-yard, par-4 with trees to the right that causes a blind approach from that area of the fairway. A long iron into the slightly elevated, small green isn’t uncommon when winds are blowing. Deep bunkers protect the right side and back left demanding the most precise second shot for any chance at birdie. Last year the 17th surrendered 51 birdies and inflicted 95 bogeys or worse.
Finding the left side of the fairway on the 484 yard, dogleg right, par-4 18th sets up the best angle into a large, uphill, two-tiered green. Drives hit too far left however can be blocked by a cluster of walnut trees, or worse, find the creek threading the tree line. The heavily bunkered right side of the fairway can be just as dangerous. It’s a rugged hole demanding both power and precision, and last year allowed only 56 birdied while serving up 103 bogeys or worse.
Players To Watch
Hideki Matsuyama is third in Birdie Average and seventh in Greens-In-Regulation this season on Tour and Muirfield Village favors this kind of player. Given his history here and skill set that suits the course, Matsuyama should be a lock to finish inside the top-10 unless he’s all over the place from the tee. Jason Day was dialed in tee-to-green in his playoff loss last week at Colonial, and all signs seemingly point to him contending this week. However Day’s never finished inside the top-25 in eight previous tries at Muirfield, and this isn’t an accident. Something about this course doesn’t suit his eye, and I’m expecting his struggles to continue. Expect Day to finish outside the top-25 again.
Muirfield tends to always reward the very best iron players and few have been better than Dustin Johnson this season. Combined with his length off the tee, it’s really a no-brainer to pick him as the winner. Johnson’s first on Tour in Driving Distance and Greens-In-Regulation and he’ll go for the jugular on the par-5s. He finished third here last year, but could easily have won if not for three bogeys in the first four holes on the back-nine on Sunday. DJ’s been in trophy mode all season and I expect him feast on Muirfield.