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.
In our last five-year window we reviewed in April, Tiger Woods had just won his third straight Memorial title, but the streak was ended by Jim Furyk in 2002. We are now moving ahead to a final nine-year stretch, covering 2006 to last year, when Hideki Matsuyama beat Kevin Na in a playoff, the first overtime finish at Muirfield Village since 1992. It was quite a performance by Matsuyama as he became the first player in Memorial history to birdie the 18th hole all four rounds. But he only needed a par on the first extra hole to turn back Na.
Foreign-born players made their mark in this era of the Tournament, joining Greg Norman, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and David Graham. In the first 15 years of the Memorial, only Graham and Norman were winners who hailed from outside the U.S. But in addition to Matsuyama last year, the international contingent added victories by Sweden's Carl Pettersson in 2006, South Korea's K.J. Choi in '07 and England's Justin Rose in 2010.
Pettersson played steady golf for four rounds and was unflappable in his two-stroke win over former Masters winner Zach Johnson and Cincinnati native Brett Wetterich. He led from the second round on after opening 69-67, and his closing 71 was good for a 12-under 276 total.
The following year it was Choi's turn, but he had to put on a remarkable charge to capture the 2007 Memorial. He trailed third-round leader Rod Pampling by five strokes, but a 7-under 65, notable as much for clutch par saves down the stretch as the early birdie run that got him in contention, was good enough to edge Ryan Moore by one with a 271 total. Moore also finished strong with a 66, but it wasn't enough as the affable Korean known as "Tank" went out in 30 on the front nine and hung on. His 65 tied the record for low final round by a winner, set by Furyk in '02.
Rose, who would go on to capture the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, can trace his rising career status to his 2010 Memorial win, his first on the PGA TOUR. He joined Tom Lehman, Keith Fergus and Kenny Perry as the only players to make the Memorial Tournament their first TOUR victory.
Rose had a share of the lead in the first round with a player who appeared ready for his breakthrough win: Ricky Fowler. After both opened with 65, Fowler rattled off 66-69 to lead by three shots. But when Fowler faltered with a final-round 73, Rose jumped into the opening. His closing 66 gave him an 18-under 270 total and three-shot victory.
"Until you win over here, you don't feel like you've really achieved all you want in the game," said Rose, who had won six times in Europe previously.
Kenny Perry, a two-time winner of the Memorial, found himself three strokes off the lead entering the final round of the 2008 Tournament. It was then that Perry played what he called possibly the greatest round of his 26-year professional career to emerge victorious at the 33rd Memorial. Amid swirling winds and some of the toughest course conditions in Tournament history, Perry posted an impeccable final round 3-under-par 69 for an 8-under 280 total and a two-stroke triumph.
“Magic always happens for me here,” said Perry of Muirfield Village Golf Club and the Memorial Tournament. “I just love this place!”
In winning his 10th PGA TOUR title, Perry joined Tiger Woods as the Tournament’s only three-time winners and spoiled the breakout bid of Australia’s Mathew Goggin, who led after each of the first three rounds. Goggin went on to finish in a tie for second with Rose, Jerry Kelly and 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir.
Winning had become a habit for 2011 Memorial winner Steve Stricker, but his performance in past appearances at Muirfield Village suggested that a victory in central Ohio was a long shot at best. But Stricker, one of the game's steadiest players and nicest individuals, showed his tenacity. Having never before finished in the top 10 at Muirfield Village, Stricker nursed a three-stroke lead after 54 holes into a one-stroke victory over Matt Kuchar and Brandt Jobe.
A series of clutch par saves, including on the newly designed par-3 16th hole that made its debut in 2011, enabled Stricker to post a 68 and 16-under 272 total. It was the 10th PGA TOUR win of his career, and he set a record by becoming the first Memorial competitor to record eagles on a par-3, par-4 and par-5 hole. His ace came at the 8th hole, with a 6-iron from 186 yards.
The three eagles came in a stretch of just seven holes over the first two days. "I think that stretch of holes ... I played about 10 holes in 9 under or something like that, and that kind of won the Tournament for me," Stricker said.
Two years later, in the 2013 Memorial Tournament, Kuchar got his name on the Memorial ledger with a two-stroke victory over Kevin Chappell. Just one week after letting a 54-hole lead slip through his fingers at Colonial, Kuchar shot a final-round 68 and posted 12-under 276 for his first multi-win season of his career. He also received something very special with the win, noting, "To walk off the green and to greet Mr. Nicklaus and have him congratulate me is something I'll certainly never forget."
And how can we forget Tiger Woods? Naturally, Woods would again figure in this narrative one more time. OK, twice more.
He captured the 2009 edition with a sterling 65 in the final round to beat Furyk by a stroke with a 12-undr 276 total. Then in the 2012 edition, he extended his record for Memorial wins with his fifth title, and he did it in typical thrilling fashion. With a signature stroke surpassed for brilliance and timeliness only by Paul Azinger's bunker shot on the 72nd hole in 1993, Woods hit a remarkable flop shot from behind the 16th green that found its way into the cup for a birdie. That ended up being the difference as Woods, with another final-round 65 and 9-under 279 total, defeated Andres Romero and Rory Sabbatini by two shots.
How impressive was the stroke? Woods said it was "one of the hardest ones I've pulled off." Jack Nicklaus was more emphatic. He called it, "the most unbelievable, gutsy shot I've ever seen. ... I don't think under the circumstances I've ever seen a better shot." The win brought added intrigue in that it was Woods's 73rd of his career on the PGA TOUR, tying the Golden Bear for second all-time behind Sam Snead.
Talk about timing.
This brings us back to Matsuyama, the promising Japanese talent. His victory brings us back full circle to the beginning. Matsuyama became the first man since Roger Maltbie in the inaugural Memorial to win in his first start. And, as mentioned previously, he did it in a playoff.
Nothing like tying it all together so neatly. Just like the Memorial Tournament itself, so neatly tied together by excellence for 40 years.