(CBS Pittsburgh) — The Memorial Tournament moved to July during last year’s COVID-altered season. Jack Nicklaus’s event returns this year to early June, halfway between the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open. However, the typically strong field will be seeing the once-familiar course at Muirfield Village Golf Club for the first time since the major renovations. How it will play for the PGA Tour’s best is anyone’s guess.
According to CBS Sports golf anchor Jim Nantz, “Memorial Tournament always has one of the greatest fields in golf, and it’s played at one of the best facilities in the world, Muirfield Village. So any way you shake it, the story is going to be the chase for the championship, with it featuring many of the biggest and most decorated names in the sport. This is Jack Nicklaus’s tournament. Jack’s the greatest champion the game has ever known, with 18 majors. This course is his showcase property. It’s his masterpiece. He’s awfully proud of it, he should be, because it’s one of the best golf courses in the world. Having said that, when we were here last summer, as the leaders were playing the back nine at Muirfield Village, we actually cut to a shot of a greens crew tearing apart the sixth green. Play had already gone through. They felt like they didn’t have a minute to spare to tear down the course and rebuild it in time for the 2021 Memorial Tournament.”
While the tournament dates back to 1976, the course opened a few years before. Muirfield Village is the brainchild of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, who wanted to bring Augusta-caliber golf to central Ohio. His refinements through the years have bolstered Muirfield’s reputation as one of the finest strategic designs in the world. Nicklaus has managed the evolution of the golf course to keep up with the changing styles of current players.
In the last year, the course has been completely reimagined, from the tees to the fairways to the bunkers to the greens. Many of the tees were moved, and many of the fairways have been reshaped or rerouted. Plenty of bunkers have been added or taken out, or simply adjusted. And the greens are completely different, with some of them moved and all of them reconstructed. The fourth and 15th holes — a 210-yard par-3 and a 561-yard par-5 — may be the most dramatically changed. The course will play as a par-72, measuring 7,543 yards.
“He’s pulled off one of the greatest events in the world,” as Nantz puts it. “And you have a history of highly pedigreed champions here that speak to that, most recently Jon Rahm last summer, one of the top five players in the world. That’s what this place produces, it produces great champions on a spectacular stage.”
The next great champion will come from maybe the best field the Tour will see outside of a major. Seven of the world’s top-10 players will challenge Muirfield Village this week. That includes second-ranked Justin Thomas, who is coming off a disappointing tie for 40th at the Charles Schwab Challenge, and third-ranked Jon Rahm, who is the defending champion. Rounding out the top five, Bryson DeChambeau and Xander Schauffele will also tee it up.
Memorial favorites can be found further down the rankings as well. Those include Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, two players whose game is rounding back into form. “The field, as usual, is loaded with almost every big name in the game,” says Nantz. “Whether it’s Jordan Spieth, whose resurgence in 2021 is one of the biggest stories of the year in golf, or whether it’s Rory McIlroy, who also came out of a much, much smaller mini win drought to take the [Wells Fargo Championship] title one month ago in Charlotte at Quail Hollow.”
Spieth could have won again at the Charles Schwab had his game not faltered on Sunday. The former number-one player went into the final day a stroke ahead of eventual winner Jason Kokrak and five strokes ahead of the field. After shooting 3-over par 73, he finished the day two strokes back. It was a disappointing end to an event where he shot 63-66-66 to give himself the lead. But the down day doesn’t detract from yet another strong showing for the game’s hottest player. Spieth has eight top-10 finishes in 12 events this year. And that includes a win at the Valero Texas Open in early April.
McIlroy once held the top ranking as well, and much more recently than Spieth. He is also experiencing a sort of return to form, though he didn’t fall nearly as far in the rankings. McIlroy won the Wells Fargo in early May and cracked the top 10 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Mexico Championship before that.
Here are the favorites:
Jon Rahm (10-1)
Rahm won the Memorial last year with a score of 279, which is among the higher winning scores in decades. (Of course, the track will play very differently this time around.) He’s played well since that win. The last year has included three top-10 finishes at majors and many more in regular Tour events. Rahm is among the Tour’s best at picking up strokes from the tee to the green.
Rory McIlroy (14-1)
McIlroy, the world’s eighth-ranked player, has four top-10 finishes at the Memorial in his nine appearances. The most recent came in 2018, when he finished eighth. McIlroy continues to be among the Tour’s best off the tee, where he’s sixth-best at gaining strokes.
Jordan Spieth (14-1)
Spieth has turned his game around and must be considered among the favorites for every event he enters. The world’s 23rd-ranked player has jumped almost 60 spots since the start of the year. His last win was two months ago, though he almost had another last week. Spieth’s best finish at Muirfield was third back in 2015, though he also finished seventh in 2019.