William McGirt defends unlikely crown at Memorial

By Tom LaMarre, The Sports Xchange   |   May 29, 2017 at 10:44 AM
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Year in and year out, many of the best golfers in the world flock to Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, to pay homage to the best golfer of all time.

Jack Nicklaus is host of the Memorial Tournament, which begins on Thursday, and once again the field is loaded.

Among those who committed to play are top-ranked Dustin Johnson, Jason Day of Australia, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose of England, Adam Scott of Australia, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland also was entered, but he was forced to withdraw because ongoing back problems.

Past winners of the tournament include Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Greg Norman, Curtis Strange, Bob Tway, Kenny Perry, Tom Lehman, Paul Azinger, Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Vijay Singh of Fiji and K.J. Choi of South Korea.

The Memorial has something of a major championship feel, which made journeyman William McGirt's victory one of the biggest upsets of the 2016 season on the PGA Tour.

"I wondered for years if I would ever get to the PGA Tour," said the then-36-year-old McGirt, who won in his 165th start on the circuit. "And then once you get out here, OK, you've played 160 events. Are you ever going to win? But I think you have to get your nose bloodied some to learn how to handle it, and I definitely had my nose bloodied a few times.

"It's pretty darn cool feeling right now to get win No. 1, and for it to be here at the Memorial in front of Mr. Nicklaus, making that putt on the last hole made that pretty darn special."

McGirt got up and down from behind the 18th green on the second playoff hole, sinking a 6-foot putt for par that beat Jon Curran, another player seeking his first victory on the PGA Tour.

Nicklaus watched it all unfold and recognized what was happening as the two unheralded golfers outlasted established winners such as Johnson, McIlroy, Kuchar, J.B. Holmes and Gary Woodland.

"I won half of my golf tournaments watching everyone else self-destruct," said Nicklaus, who had 73 victories on the PGA Tour, including a record 18 major titles.

"And that's the way you win. I saw (McGirt) coming down the stretch. I saw Jon coming down the stretch. The two of them played great. I felt that either one of them could have won."

McGirt, who will try to become the first player to successfully defend his Memorial title since Tiger Woods claimed three straight of his tournament-record five victories at Muirfield Village from 1999 to 2001, took the lead with an 8-under-par 64 in the third round.

Even though he didn't tear up the course in the final round, he played the last 22 holes of regulation without a bogey, saving par from a greenside bunker on the 17th hole and closing with a two-putt par from 65 feet to shoot 71.

Then came his pressure-packed putt on the first extra hole.

"Surprisingly, I felt no nerves standing over that putt and poured it right in the middle," McGirt said, whose only other pro victory came in the 2007 Cabarrus Classic on the Tar Heel Tour.

Nicklaus named his event the Memorial Tournament in honor of four close friends from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, who were killed in a plane crash en route to Augusta, Ga., for the 1966 Masters, which the Golden Bear won. The victims included his childhood golfing buddy, Bob Barton.

Each year, the tournament honors people who have made a lasting contribution to the game of golf, and this year one of the honorees is Norman, the Aussie won claimed 91 victories worldwide, including two majors, and was atop the Official World Golf Ranking for 331 consecutive weeks.

Being honored posthumously are Tony Lema, Ken Venturi and E. Harvie Ward.

Norman captured the Memorial Tournament in 1990 by one stroke over Payne Stewart, and in 1995 by four shots over Mark Calcavecchia, David Duval and fellow Aussie Steve Elkington, in addition to finishing second in 1994 and 1997.

With all the big names, the Memorial seldom disappoints when it comes to excitement, but McGirt made last year's edition one of the most memorable.

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