The Memorial Tournament Preview, Picks & Analysis
WITH the US Open looming, a world-class field assembles at Muirfield Village for the Memorial Tournament, hosted by Jack Nicklaus. Once again, there will be huge interest in the form of Tiger Woods, who has silenced his critics in a comeback that has so far exceeded all expectations.
The only thing missing is a victory, and it surely cannot be long before the first one comes along. And who ever believed that we would be saying that. It is now 10 years since the last of Woods’ 14 major victories, the US Open at Torrey Pines when he defeated Rocco Mediate over 91 gruelling holes while playing with a broken leg. Woods came back from that, so it should really surprise nobody that he has shrugged off a series of back surgeries that would have finished off many lesser athletes.
Woods loves this tournament. He has won it five times, the last of which came in 2012. And how appropriate would it be if he were to enter the winners’ circle once more at the tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus, the man whose record total of 18 majors Woods is still chasing? There is huge respect between these two men and Nicklaus has been the first to admit that he has been surprised by the quality of the golf that Woods has produced this season.
Let’s look at some of the numbers. After the Hero World Challenge in December, Woods was ranked 650th in the world. He is now 82nd. He is just outside the top 50 in the FedEx Cup standings with almost $1.5m in prize money and must now harbour realistic hopes of making Jim Furyk’s US Ryder Cup team.
He returned to the PGA Tour at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines and finished 23rd. He then missed the cut at the Genesis Open and doubts began to surface about whether or not this was going to be a proper comeback. But then came a 12th place finish at the Honda Classic, followed by a tie for second at the Valspar Championship. That tipped everybody over the edge and suddenly Woods was installed as one of the favourites to win The Masters. It was ridiculous, and in the end he did well enough to finish tied 32nd at Augusta, followed by a disappointing 55th place at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow - a course that would never have suited Woods, even in his prime.
Perhaps the most encouraging week of his comeback came at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. By his own admission, this is not a course he likes, and he barely made the cut. But then he shot scores of 65 and 69 at the weekend to finish the tournament in a tie for 11th place. It could and should have been even better, but he found the water at the par-three 17th in the final round and it cost him a double-bogey five when he had been looking like he was heading for another runner-up finish.
And so he returns to Muirfield Village with his confidence sky-high. When Woods looks at some of the past winners of this tournament, he will have every reason to believe that this just might be his year. It was won 12 months ago by Jason Dufner, in 2016 by William McGirt, in 2015 by David Lingmerth, in 2014 by Hideki Matsuyama, in 2013 by Matt Kuchar, in 2012 by Woods himself and in 2011 by Steve Stricker.
The point is that McGirt and Lingmerth could hardly be described as members of the game’s elite, while Dufner, Kuchar and Stricker are all fairly short hitters. One of the biggest surprises about Tiger’s comeback has been the incredible distances he is hitting the golf ball. Remember that we are talking about a man who has undergone fusion surgery on his back. While he has been wayward from the tee at times this year, his driving during the final two rounds at Sawgrass was nothing short of sensational. And while he retains that incredible ability to will the ball into the hole, he remains capable of winning any golf tournament on any golf course. He will fancy his chances here, and he will definitely believe that he can win the US Open.
But boy does he face some stiff opposition. His toughest challenge may well come from Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler. Rose won this tournament in 2010 and was runner-up in 2008 and 2015, and Muirfield Village presents him with the sort of test that he relishes, coming just after his brilliant victory at Colonial. The Englishman has always been at his best on tough courses and Nicklaus always ensures that the rough is thick and the greens are lightning quick - in other words, the ideal preparation for a US Open.
There are few golfers on the planet who are better on courses that require a strategic approach. Rose knows the importance of putting the ball in the right place and, more important, of avoiding the wrong places. With the correct sequence of results, Rose could find himself at the top of the world rankings soon, and there would be no more deserving player. Nobody works harder on his game and gets more from his ability than he does. He has always been a stunning ball striker, and is at last enjoying some success on the greens. And it will not bother him one little bit that he arrives here after a terrific week at Fort Worth.
Fowler was runner-up here to Rose in 2010 and to Dufner last year and is in some great form right now. His play during the final round of The Masters was simply breathtaking. He still makes too many silly mistakes, attacking flags when it might make more sense to aim for the fat of the green, but there have been some encouraging signs lately that he is finally learning that there is a time for a safety-first approach. Fowler possesses two great strengths - a wonderful temperament and the touch of an angel on the greens. If he arrives at Muirfield Village with his putting boots on then he will take some stopping.
New world no 1 Justin Thomas is also in the field, and has made it clear that he intends to hang on to the top spot for just as long as he possibly can. The American is a true golf enthusiast and could name every golfer to top the rankings - and probably tell you how long each one remained there for. He has admitted that the thought of overtaking Dustin Johnson distracted him as he began to consider the enormity of the achievement, but he now plans to enjoy the view from the summit.
However, Johnson and Jordan Spieth are also in the field, and both men may have something to say about that. They are joined by Rory McIlroy, who will be looking to recover the form that won him the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He will know full well that unless he can keep the ball in play he may struggle to make the cut, far less challenge for a victory. But with McIlroy you just never know.
A better bet might be Jason Day, who is once again enjoying the sort of form that saw him become world No 1 and win the US PGA Championship. The Australian hits the ball a mile and, crucially, has rediscovered both his wondrous putting stroke and his magical touch around the greens.
Rickie Fowler. Looking for a big, big summer
Justin Rose. Muirfield Village is made for him
Tiger Woods. He couldn’t could he? Of course he could
Rickie Fowler. Has shown some sparkling form this year
Justin Rose. Has moved into another class
Tiger Woods. Ready to win again
Jason Day. Enjoying another purple patch
Jordan Spieth. Impossible to ignore
Rory McIlroy. Must keep the ball in play
Patrick Reed. Seems to have grown six inches since winning The Masters
Patrick Cantlay. Ready to hit the big time
Aaron Wise. Yet another brilliant young American
Henrik Stenson. Has the game to win here
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