The 40th playing of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide approaches June 1-7, 2015, and there have been quite a few highlights along the way in the prestigious Tournament that Jack Nicklaus created not long after Muirfield Village Golf Club opened in 1974.
In fact, it was exactly two years to the day that the first Memorial Tournament kicked off on May 27, 1976, and it's a wonderful exercise to look back on all of the great winners, great finishes -- and great exchanges of handshakes, of course -- through the ages.
We have now entered the Tiger Woods era with our next five-year period of review from 1996-2000. Woods turned professional near the end of the 1996 season and was a two-time winner by the time he reached the TOUR Championship, a remarkable sprint to excellence.
Woods made his Memorial Tournament debut in 1997 -- as the reigning Masters champion and finished T67 in the rain-shortened edition won by Vijay Singh. He was T51 in 1998, hardly impressive and not in any way giving an indication of the dominance soon to come at Muirfield Village. Woods began an unprecedented streak of three straight wins in the Memorial with his 1999 two-stroke victory over Singh.
Woods shot a closing 3-under 69 and finished at 15-under 273, even though he wasn't as sharp as his playing partner, Singh, who said afterwards, "I thought I was going to win. I played better golf than Tiger did today and he won. He scored when he needed to."
Hey, scoring is all that counts, and Woods left less doubt about the outcome the following year when he beat Ernie Els and Justin Leonard by five strokes, a victory highlighted by a second-round 63 that put him in the lead for good. He went on to win the U.S. Open two weeks later by a record 15 shots (over Els) and also won the British Open and PGA on the way to what become known as the "Tiger Slam" when he won his fourth straight major at the 2001 Masters.
Woods closed with a 70 and posted a 19-under 269 aggregate score, one off Tom Lehman's Tournament record. "I knew the record was 20 under, but it was not my driving force today," Woods said after winning the 25th Memorial.
The other winners of this period also were special -- Hall of Fame caliber, in fact: Fred Couples in 1998, Singh in '97, and Tom Watson in '96 with one of the more emotional wins in Memorial history.
Watson, who won the 1979 Memorial, hadn't won a tournament in seven years before holding off David Duval by two strokes. Watson birdied the 72nd hole and raised his arms in triumph and relief to post a final-round 70 and 14-under 274 total. As he headed towards the scoring room, he shared a hug with Tournament Host Nicklaus, his friend and longtime rival.
"God it feels so good to win again," the 46-year-old Watson said.
"I believe it was the most thrilling win of any I've seen or accomplished myself in 10 years, from when I won the Masters in '86 until now," the Golden Bear said. "It means an awful lot to the game of golf."
The next year, Singh finished off a Monday 67 in a rain-plagued week of golf to post a three-round total of 202 to beat two-time winner Greg Norman and Jim Furyk by two strokes. The victory was highlighted by an eagle Singh converted on the par-15th, which was his first hole of the day.
Nicklaus finished off with a 69 for 208, tying for eighth place, his last top-10 in the Memorial.
Making up for his stumble at the finish in the 1990 edition, which also was shortened to 54 holes, Couples completed a commanding performance with a 17-under 271 score that beat Andrew Magee by four strokes. Couples broke 70 in all four rounds despite his chronically achy back and a third-round migraine.
But it was everyone else who got a headache at the end as Couples could not be caught.
"I am thrilled to win here," he said after hoisting the trophy.
It's a sentiment shared by others before him -- and after, too.