In a recent SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio survey, players were asked to rank their three favorite golf courses on TOUR. Only one course made the list unanimously — Muirfield Village Golf Club, which has hosted the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide since its inception in 1976.
“That’s quite a compliment,” said the course designer, golf great Jack Nicklaus, who also is founder and host of the Memorial Tournament.
It’s well earned.
“You’re talking about a Monet. And we hadn’t seen too many Monets back then [when Muirfield Village opened],” said Gary McCord, longtime CBS Sports golf broadcaster, who played in the inaugural Memorial. “It was great then, and all he’s done in the last 40-something years is make it greater, which isn’t an easy thing to do.”
The genesis of Muirfield Village Golf Club and the Memorial Tournament dates to 1966, when, just before the start of that year’s Masters Tournament, Nicklaus confided to one of his good friends, Ivor Young, that he wanted to start an event in Columbus that would be as exceptional as the Masters. A few months later, Young found the densely wooded, rolling tract in what was then rural Dublin that Nicklaus recognized as an area where he once hiked and hunted with his father.
After several years of acquiring property, construction began on July 28, 1972, and though Nicklaus received some assistance from fellow Ohioan, renowned architect Pete Dye, and land planner Desmond Muirhead, the final product was Jack’s doing. His refinements through the years have bolstered Muirfield’s reputation as one of the finest strategic designs in the world.
“It’s a pretty site. When I saw it, I liked the way it flowed through the valleys, and I knew I wanted to create a gallery golf course. The valleys were wide enough to accommodate that goal,” said Nicklaus, whose design philosophy came from many sources, but, in particular, from Scioto Country Club, his home course in Columbus designed by Donald Ross. “I can’t say I was a golf course designer because I didn’t have much experience. I just liked the property. When it came to designing the course, it was about finding the best areas. There were two creeks that came together at one end of the property, which today is where the creeks come down at 11 and 15. We had another creek that came down where the second hole is now, coming down from the fifth hole. That creek goes out at the third hole, providing the drainage for the property. I just worked myself back through those valleys.”
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The design not only was strategically sound, but groundbreaking in one sense. Nicklaus infused the layout with a feature he called, “amphitheatering,” or mounding on the periphery of playing areas that offered patrons unobstructed views. The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, designed by Dye, is often credited with introducing the concept of stadium golf, but Muirfield Village predates TPC Sawgrass by two years.
“I was there at the very beginning, but it’s unbelievable what he has done, how he has modified it, made it stronger with the kinds of shots you have to hit,” Dye said. “He’s made it into one of the best dang golf courses you’ll find anywhere.”
Indeed, as the years have peeled away, Nicklaus has managed the evolution of the golf course. Some changes have been significant, like the redesign of the 17th hole in 2002 and the 16th hole in 2011 in preparation for the 2013 Presidents Cup. The par-72 layout was just 6,969 yards when it opened on Memorial Day in 1974, but today it measures 7,392 yards.
Golf Digest ranks it No. 16 in America, and, of course, it has the endorsement of the players, not to mention golf’s governing bodies. Muirfield Village Golf Club is the only venue in history to host the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and the Presidents Cup. The U.S. Golf Association also has found its way there for a number of its national championships, including the 1992 U.S. Amateur.
Nicklaus hasn’t tinkered with Muirfield Village much since the Presidents Cup. But he always keeps a critical eye on how it plays each year, as professional golfers get bigger and stronger and launch the golf ball ever farther.
“Through the years I have made a lot of changes, some for the sake of the members, some to improve the spectator experience, and some simply to make the golf course a better and stronger test,” said Nicklaus, who won his own event twice, in 1977 and ’84, victories he cherishes as much as his 18 major professional titles. “I’ve spent a ton of time here, but I haven’t changed the course radically. Like any designer, I want the course to show well, and be able to hold up against the game’s best players, so I have tried to find ways to preserve shot values. Muirfield Village, basically, is the same course that opened in 1974. It’s still a course where placing the ball in the proper areas is more important than power. I think that makes for more exciting golf.”
Nicklaus arrived for this year’s 42nd edition of the Memorial on Friday and played 18 holes with his son, Jack II, on Saturday. He made three birdies. At age 77, he can still play a little. But mostly he was paying attention to what is out there, how the course is likely to play this week when 120 of the game’s best players descend on Central Ohio.
“Obviously, Muirfield Village stands alone as something that means a great deal to me,” he said recently. “What it represents is my total vision as it relates to a golf course, a club, and a tournament. We have come a long way with it, and it’s a neat thing to have a dream and make it happen.”
Journalist and author David Shedloski of Columbus, Ohio, has been covering golf since 1986, first as a daily newspaper reporter and later as a freelance writer for various magazines and Internet outlets. A winner of 23 national writing awards, including 20 for golf coverage, Shedloski is currently a contributing writer for Golf World and GolfDigest.com and serves as editorial director for The Memorial, the official magazine of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. He is the author of three books and has contributed to three others, including the second edition of “Golf For Dummies,” with Gary McCord. He’s a fan of all Cleveland professional sports teams, the poor fellow.