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A SUCCESS FROM THE START: the Memorial Tournament... A Look Back (1976 - 1980)

Sent on Thursday, November 13, 2014

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 Tournanent 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.

Just consider the first five years of the Memorial Tournament, which were notable for a gallery stake and for the big stakes the Tournament represented to Nicklaus.

Roger Maltbie was an unlikely winner of the inaugural Memorial, defeating the much more decorated and accomplished Hale Irwin on the fourth playoff hole. The two tied at even-par 288 and then matched scores on the first two playoff holes. On the third, at the par-4 17th, Maltbie pulled his approach left of the green, but the ball bounced off a gallery stake and onto the green, enabling Maltbie to equal Irwin's par. The 1975 Rookie of the Year won it on 18 when he sank a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th.

Nicklaus finished tied for eighth at 4-over 292, but he made up for that the very next year when he won the 1977 edition by two strokes over Hubert Green with a rain-delayed Monday finish. The Golden Bear shot 7-under 281, including a closing 71 that required three holes on the extra day.

In the aftermath, Nicklaus called the victory "my biggest thrill in golf." So monumental was his 63rd PGA TOUR title -- one more than chief rival Arnold Palmer -- Nicklaus privately mulled announcing his retirement after receiving the trophy. His faithful wife Barbara talked him out of it. 

"This is probably as hard a tournament for me to win as any I've ever played," Nicklaus said, further illuminating the importance of the occasion. "In my own mind, it was something harder for me to do that I thought I had the ability to do."

With an opening 67 in the 1978 Memorial, which tied the Tournament record, Nicklaus appeared ready to pick up where he left off as he held a share of the lead with friendly rival Gary Player. But a second-round 76 opened the door for others, and Jim Simons scrambled his way to his second TOUR title by one stroke over Bill Kratzert. 

Simons got up and down seven times in the final round for a 74, but it was enough during a week in which just three players broke par. Simons finished at 4-under 284, Kratzert also had a 74 for 285 and Fuzzy Zoeller's 70 gave him 287.

Difficult playing conditions marked the 1979 Tournament, and the game's best bad-weather player took charge. In one of the most impressive rounds in Tournament history, Tom Watson shot a second-round 69 amid drizzly, chilly weather to take a four-stroke lead on the field, and he cruised to a three-shot victory over Miller Barber.

The wind chill on Friday plummeted to 13 degrees, but Watson not only was the only player to break par but he beat the next best score by four shots in what he called, "one of the best, most satisfying rounds I ever played." It helped him flip a four-shot deficit to Lanny Wadkins into a four-shot lead. A pair of 71s on the weekend was good for a 3-under 285 total.

Another major champion captured the 1980 Memorial as David Graham set a Tournament record with his 8-under 280 total. A final-round 70 enabled Graham to overtake Bob Gilder and shake free from several contenders, including Watson, who would end up second, one stroke back.

Graham's win proved the most dramatic since the first Memorial as he eagled the 15th and then sank a 30-foot birdie at 18 to beat Watson. At 34, the native of Australia became the first international winner, and he seemed as proud of it as he was his win in the PGA Championship the previous August.

"This Tournament means a great deal to me because of the golf course. You must drive it in position and play your irons consistently," Graham explained. "The course requires a lot of finesse and an unbelievable amount of patience. It's gratifying to know you have the kind of game to win on a course like this."

Others would soon find out what he was talking about.

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