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    • Memorial has grown into an elite TOUR stop

    • A stellar course and legendary host have contributed to the success of the Memorial Tournament. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)A stellar course and legendary host have contributed to the success of the Memorial Tournament. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

    DUBLIN, Ohio -- Jack Nicklaus was 36 years old back in 1976 when he hosted the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance for the first time.

    He had already won 59 times on the PGA TOUR, including 14 of the 18 major championships that set the standard Tiger Woods so doggedly chases to this day. Nicklaus had been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame two years earlier, too.

    Yet, Nicklaus remembers being "pretty much chief cook and bottlewasher" as the inaugural Memorial Tournament got under way at Muirfield Village, his signature creation. His attention to detail was second to none -- Nicklaus picked up cigarette butts and scraps of paper between shots, stuffing them out of sight in Angelo Argea's caddie bib.

    "Anything I found on the golf course I picked up and we put in his pocket," Nicklaus said. "I just wanted to have a clean golf course."

    Roger Maltbie beat Hale Irwin that year -- the future TV commentator saved from extinction in a three-hole aggregate playoff by a gallery stake that sent an approach headed for never-never land safely back onto the green for a two-putt par. So the two headed for sudden death and Maltbie ended the proceedings with a 20-foot birdie putt on the fourth extra hole.

    The tournament host, by the way, finished in a tie for eighth with Rod Funseth, four strokes off the pace. Of course, Nicklaus came back and won the 1977 event for one of his two victories here.

    The Memorial endures as one of the PGA TOUR's premier events. This year's renewal has attracted all but nine of the top 30 players in the FedExCup standings and seven of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, including newly-minted No. 1 Adam Scott, fresh off a win Sunday at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

    "I think the tournament has evolved very nicely," Nicklaus said. "We haven't positioned ourselves to be anything more than what we are. I think we're a good tournament, certainly one of the top tournaments in the game. We haven't positioned ourselves to be a major. It's not been our goal.

    "Positioned ourselves to try to be a service to the game of golf, no different than what Augusta started out to do. That was sort of my guiding light to what I wanted to do."

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    Jack Nicklaus reflects on the early years of the Memorial Tournament
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      Jack Nicklaus reflects on the early years of the Memorial Tournament

    Tiger Woods, who started his own tournament in 2007 to raise money for his foundation, made sure he called Nicklaus on Wednesday to say how much he'll miss playing at Muirfield Village this year. And why not? Woods, sidelined by back surgery in March, is a five-time Memorial champion.

    Rory McIlroy even braved jet lag to play at Jack's house after closing with a 66 at Wentworth on Sunday to win the BMW PGA Championship. The win in the European Tour's flagship event was his first victory on that circuit since the finale in 2012. A win at Muirfield Village on Sunday would be his first on the PGA TOUR since 2012.

    "I think it's one of the best events on the TOUR, one of the best events that we have," McIlroy said. "Great golf course. It's run incredibly well, obviously, with Jack being so heavily involved. A lot of guys want to show up and show their support for the tournament. And he's assembled one of the best fields of the year."

    Reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose says the Memorial Tournament has a "wow factor -- just having Jack's name gives it that." But the same attention to detail that had Nicklaus picking up trash during that first tournament at Muirfield Village has assured the facility continues to keep pace with the best around the world.

    A new locker room and fitness center, built prior to last year's Presidents Cup, as well as permanent hospitality suites, have enhanced the entire Muirfield Village complex for players and fans alike.

    "Just really, really enjoy the test and the whole extra experience," Rose said. "... What Jack has created is something from the moment you walk in the gates to teeing it up to tapping in to using the locker room afterwards, it seems to have it all now."

    Rose, who won the Memorial in 2010, says Muirfield Village -- which has also hosted two Ryder Cups and a Solheim Cup -- is a fun, fair course for the players.

    "There's a lot of strategy on this golf course," Rose said. "Obviously with Jack building it, you expect to have to think a lot around this golf course. What I like about it is it gives you the driver. The fairways are relatively wide. You feel like you can get it and play off the tee and be somewhat aggressive.

    "But it's a second shot golf course. You need to have distance control with your irons. You can't short-side yourself. The greens are incredibly fast. But they're true. So it rewards good play."

    And the players who are the most "mentally tough," according to the game's resident wunderkind, Jordan Spieth.

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