Some of golf’s greatest names in the last half-century have won multiple titles at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament. The host himself, Hale Irwin, Tom Watson, Greg Norman all collected a pair of titles, while Tiger Woods has won the event four times.
The layout at Muirfield Village Golf Course is challenging, to say the least, and like many championship courses, steady putting is required to successfully navigate the track.
It’s one reason why 23 of the 36 Memorial Tournament winners also boast at least one major victory on their resumes.
This tournament can also provide an excellent indicator of who has the ability to win a major championship, as several players have had strong showings at The Memorial prior to winning their first career major.
Fuzzy Zoeller claimed the first of his two major wins at Augusta, winning the green jacket in 1979. He had two top-five finishes at The Memorial before that, tying for fifth in 1977, and finishing third the following year. All-time, Zoeller had four career top ten finishes at Muirfield Village.
Ben Crenshaw won his first of two Masters back in 1984. The year before that, he tied for second with David Graham, just one shot back of that year’s champion, Irwin. “Gentle Ben” went on to post two other top tens at The Memorial.
Scott Simpson wasn’t necessarily considered an elite player during his prime, but seemed to rise to the occasion at the U.S. Open. The San Diego native won that title in 1987, and lost in a playoff to Payne Stewart in 1991. The Memorial can serve as excellent preparation for the USGA’s crown jewel, and Simpson is proof of that. All four of his Memorial top ten finishes were prior to that U.S. Open victory, including a tie for ninth in 1987.
Stewart himself is on this list, finishing in the top ten at Muirfield Village four times prior to winning his first of three majors, at the 1989 PGA Championship. Stewart is probably more remembered for seeing a third round lead slip away in the 1993 Memorial, which was won by Paul Azinger’s (see below) incredible hole out for birdie on the 72nd hole from a bunker.
For the longest time, Tom Kite had the title of “best player to never win a major” until he exchanged it for the title of “United States Open Champion, 1992”. One of the best with the flat stick on tour, Kite had four top tens at The Memorial prior to that victory, including a tie for seventh in 1992.
With his victory in 1993, Azinger solidified his standing as one of the best performers in Memorial Tournament history. He registered a total of five top ten, including a tie for ninth in 1990. His one and only major triumph came up the road in Toledo, defeating Norman for the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness Country Club in Toledo.
Never to be confused with the long hitters on Tour, Corey Pavin’s steady play and putting prowess brought him success at The Memorial with three top fours from 1985 through 93. He went on to hit one of the most memorable four-woods in golf history, setting up his par on the 18th hole at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, and preserving his 1995 U.S. Open victory.
The 1996 PGA Championship was contested at Nicklaus-designed Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, where Mark Brooks eventually triumphed over Kentucky-native (and three-time Memorial winner) Kenny Perry in a playoff. His only major victory was preceded by three top seven finishes in a five-year span (1990-94) at The Memorial.
Davis Love, III finally cracked the major winner category with a comfortable victory at Winged Foot in the 1997 PGA Championship, holing his final putt with a vibrant rainbow in the background. Love loved getting around Muirfield Village, with five career top ten finishes, including three before that 1997 PGA Championship title.
Mark O’Meara won both of his majors in the 1998 season, starting with The Masters (British Open). His resume included four top ten finishes at The Memorial, including a third-place tie in 1996.
The final major winner of 1998, was Vijay Singh, who claimed the PGA Championships’ Wanamaker Trophy. Of course, Singh won a shortened, 54-hole Memorial title the year before, knocking a three-wood to within a couple of feet on the 11th hole in the third (and final) round to set up his victory. Five years earlier, Singh finished in a tie for seventh. He has six career top tens at The Memorial
Hardly anyone knew who the pudgy golfer was that finished in a tie for second in the 1995 Memorial. That player would slim down, and finish in the top three at Muirfield Village four times in five years. David Duval eventually became the number one golfer in the world, and win the 2001 British Open.
Until missing the cut last year at The Memorial, 2002 winner Jim Furyk finished in the money in all 15 previous appearances in the event. He tied for second in 1997, was fourth the following year, and has six top tens in all. Furyk went on to win the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Field Country Club outside of Chicago.
Stewart Cink usually plays well at Muirfield Village, as six career top ten finishes attests to. Before winning the 2009 British Open, he had five of those top tens, including a fourth place effort a month before his win at Turnberry.
Last year, Rory McIlroy ran away with things at Congressional, taking home the U.S. Open for his first major win at the precocious age of 22. In just two career Memorial Tournament starts, the Northern Ireland native tied for tenth in 2010, and finished fifth last year.
It doesn’t always work that way, though. Perry won the event three times, but never earned a major victory, losing in playoffs at the 1996 PGA Championship, and the 2008 Masters. Jay Haas made The Memorial cut 27 out of 29 times, with a record 9 top tens, but never won a major. David Frost had seven top tens, and Scott Hoch six, and both came up empty in majors.
Naturally, the thought then turns to who could be the next player to win a major, after playing well at The Memorial.
K.J. Choi won the 2007 Memorial, and has two other top-tens at Muirfield Village. The 29th-ranked player in the world has 8 career PGA Tour wins.
World number two, Luke Donald, tied for sixth at the 2008 Memorial, and tied for seventh last year. Donald had a fantastic season on both sides of the pond in 2011, and it would only seem to be a matter of time before he breaks through for a major victory.
Big things have also been projected for 23-year old Rickie Fowler, whose first career PGA Tour win came earlier this month in Charlotte. He was the third round leader at The Memorial in 2010, before a final round 73 yielded the title to Justin Rose (see below).
Dustin Johnson came in fourth in 2011, his only top ten at Muirfield Village in four career trips to Dublin. Johnson has come close to winning a couple of majors, only to be undone by his final round, including the infamous incident at the 2010 PGA Championship, where he mistakenly grounded his club in a bunker at Whistling Straights, with the penalty shot keeping out of the playoff ultimately won by Martin Kaymer.
Matt Kuchar just won the Players Championship a couple weeks ago, his fourth PGA tour title. The fifth-ranked player in the world is coming off an incredible stretch of three straight top-eight finishes at The Memorial, including a tie for second last year. Despite his track record, and previous commitment to play, Kuchar decided to take this week off.
With just one career PGA Tour win, Ryan Moore’s name is brought up often as a major contender. However, he has three top tens at The Memorial in the past five years. Moore is certainly a name to keep an eye on.
Justin Rose burst onto the golf scene as a 17-year old amateur that finished tied for fourth at the 1998 British Open, which is still his major high-water mark. Rose has four career PGA Tour wins, including the 2010 Memorial, which is part of three career top ten finishes at Muirfield Village Golf Club.
Adam Scott is another golfer that many thought might battle Tiger Woods for years and years. Scott has put together an impressive career already, with 8 PGA Tour triumphs. Still only 31 years old, Scott has been a factor at several majors, but yet to claim the winner’s prize. The Australian tied for fourth in 2006, and tied for fifth the following year at The Memorial.
You could make a case for Steve Stricker as the current “best player to never win a major”. He has 12 career PGA Tour titles, including last year’s Memorial. Stricker is currently ranked eighth in the world, but running out of time at the age of 45.
Two other names that don’t come up very often, but have solid games are Bo Van Pelt, and Mark Wilson. Van Pelt, who grew up a couple hours away in Richmond, Indiana, and two top three finishes in his Memorial Tournament history. Wilson tied for third in 2009, and tied for seventh last year.
These are the types of players who seem to sneak up out of “nowhere” to win.