Five things to know: Muirfield Village
10 Min Read
Written by Jeff Eisenband @JeffEisenband
Now in its third year after its second renovation, Muirfield Village Golf Club will once again challenge the best of the PGA TOUR in its thick rough, on its firm greens and everywhere in between.
Jack Nicklaus' dream for the Memorial Tournament presented by Workday started in his 20s when he hoped to bring Columbus a pro-caliber event. Roughly five decades later, Nicklaus’ mindset is to keep innovating his track to fit the modern game, while maintaining its appeal to amateurs.
If a certain local monument can now just cooperate, we are in for a beautiful week at Muirfield Village.
1. JACK'S TRIBUTE VISION
The course is called Muirfield Village and is located in Dublin. But the Greater Columbus, Ohio area does not exactly present the same features as Scotland and Ireland.
Muirfield Village GC is indeed named after Muirfield Golf Links, where Jack Nicklaus represented the United States for the first time in the 1959 Walker Cup and where he won his first of three Open Championship titles in 1966. The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, now based at Muirfield, is credited with writing the 13 “Rules of Golf” in 1744. Nicklaus planned to write American golf history in Dublin when he bought the future property for Muirfield Village, where he used to hunt rabbits with his dad, in 1966.
Just 26 at the time of purchasing the land, Nicklaus hoped to provide his hometown of Columbus with its own PGA TOUR-caliber event, taking inspiration from Bobby Jones’ formulation of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters. Construction began in 1972, with Nicklaus teaming with designer Desmond Muirhead (no relation to Muirfield), and in 1974, Nicklaus opened the course with an exhibition match against Tom Weiskopf. He won with a 6-under 66, a course record that stood for Muirfield Village’s first five years.
The Memorial Tournament arrived two years later in 1976 and has not missed a year since. Roger Maltbie won the initial event before Nicklaus won twice in 1977 and 1984.
In 2013, Nicklaus, who has now been tweaking Muirfield Village for 50 years, told The New York Times of Muirfield Village, “What it represents is my total vision as it relates to the golf course.”
It may not have the flat, links terrain of Scotland or Ireland, but Muirfield Village has placed itself among the trademark tracks of American golf. And hey, there is some presence of Muirfield in town. Muirfield Village’s streets are named after Scottish golf communities.
2. 2020 RAPID RENOVATION
As Jon Rahm survived Muirfield Village to win the 2020 Memorial Tournament at 9-under (with a final-round two-shot penalty unbeknownst to him), the course’s crew had more important things to handle. Moments after Rahm and final-round playing partner Ryan Palmer finished their front nine, this group began tearing up the grass. This was the start of an aggressive renovation that had no time to waste.
While on the surface, a renovation seemed unnecessary – after all, Muirfield Village was already near the top of most lists of the world's top courses – Nicklaus, sticking to his original vision for Muirfield Village, felt the urge to continue innovating the course to meet the modern game. Working with Nicklaus Design’s Chris Cochran and Muirfield Village Director of Ground Operations Chad Mark, Nicklaus envisioned a golf course that could continue challenging the pros while fitting the desires of Muirfield Village members.
The renovation, Muirfield Village’s second formal renovation since its opening, actually started in 2019 with work on the back nine. The two-year, two-part renovation added distance to the tournament settings, stretching to 7,609 yards. However, for the members, Nicklaus went the other way, shortening the forward tees by 250 yards and widening fairway landing areas for amateurs.\
Before and after | Muirfield Village course renovation
Overhead shots during the Memorial Tournament will show TV viewers the different mouths of the fairways, which will narrow at the specific points the pros target.
Meanwhile, all green complexes were rebuilt and adjusted from a bentgrass/poa annua hybrid to bentgrass-only. This also allowed for hole location options to increase.
The result is a more durable Muirfield Village, looking more 2022 than 1972. The bones and strategy of the course remain similar, though. Perhaps to no surprise, Rahm came flying out of the gates in 2021, and until his late withdrawal, he was navigating the renovated course with the same fervor he had in 2020.
3. GREENS AND ROUGH OF TERROR
Jack Nicklaus and the crew at Muirfield Village have always maintained that the Memorial Tournament provides a fair test of golf. In the last couple years, that has become arguably a fair gauntlet of golf.
In 2020, Nicklaus noted that he uses some of the conditions of U.S. Opens to prepare Muirfield Village for battle. The 2020 edition was particularly unique, as it took place in July after the COVID-19 restart. It also followed the Workday Charity Open, also at Muirfield Village, which Collin Morikawa won in a playoff against Justin Thomas at 19-under.
Morikawa made the cut at the 2020 Memorial, but he finished 27 strokes worse at 8-over. The winning score was 10 shots higher. Only nine players finished under par, as opposed to 56 at the Workday Charity Open (the cut line was 2-under).
Rahm called his Saturday 68 at the 2020 Memorial “one of the best rounds of golf that I’ve played in my life.”
Tiger Woods said of the week, “One of the most difficult conditions I’ve played in a long time.”
Now, how can Nicklaus make Muirfield Village harder on a week-to-week basis? The greens are the place to start. In 2020, Muirfield Village had the flat surface rolling at 13 on the stimpmeter. And on Sunday of that tournament, the first 16 holes all included hole locations four paces or less from the edge. No. 17 and No. 18 were more forgiving at six and five yards from the edge, respectively.
And then there is the rough. In 2020, shots off the fairway or green were in danger of needing a search party. In 2021, after the renovation, Nicklaus dialed things up to a new level of high rough.
A respectable 25 players finished under par at the Memorial in 2021, but the renovations reiterated the terror that Muirfield Village can present.
The formula for combatting the course is pretty simple. Just flop the ball like Tiger Woods did in 2012, out of the rough, downhill, toward the water, into the hole, en route to his fifth and most recent Memorial Tournament title.
Nicklaus has been notable for proposing golf courses find ways to challenge players within their surface area, as opposed to just lengthening holes. His work with the greens and rough put this vision on display.
4. THE CURSE OF CHIEF LEATHERLIPS
While the Memorial Tournament may be the most notable event every year in Dublin, Ohio, one resident, in particular, disapproves of the tournament. At least, according to local lore.
Down the road stands the Leatherlips sculpture, a tribute to Chief Leatherlips, a Wyandot Native American leader in the area in the late 18th century and early 19th century. As the story goes, after Muirfield Village was built near Leatherlips’ gravesite, he cursed the Memorial Tournament. Any rain or inclement weather causing play to stop at the Memorial is chalked up to “The Curse of Chief Leatherlips.”
According to a 1997 Associated Press story, when the 1993 edition of the Memorial experienced a rain delay for a fourth straight year – and 11th such instance in 18 years – Barbara Nicklaus decided to do something. Arnold Palmer’s wife Winnie suggested that if Muirfield Village was built over an old cemetery, Barbara should bring Leatherlips a glass of gin to quell any angry spirits.
So Barbara went to Leatherlips’ monument on Thursday night and Friday afternoon, both after suspensions of play, to leave a glass of gin for the Dublin icon. Jack even drove her that Thursday.
“I had nothing to do with it, absolutely nothing,” Nicklaus said at the time in mock disbelief, according to the AP. “She just said, ‘Maybe I’ll give them a little gift this year, and maybe next year it’ll be something really nice.’”
The Dublin Historical Society includes this tale in its archives related to Leatherlips. Although, there have been no recent reports of Barbara bartending for the statue.
5. BEAUTIFULLY, TREACHEROUS FINALE
The final five holes at Muirfield Village embody Nicklaus’ credo: Hard, fair and picturesque.
No. 14 is a 360-yard par 4 that Nicklaus himself refers to as one of the best par 4s in the sport. While driveable based on pure distance, danger is present on both sides of the hole. A creek hugs the right side of the green, also running directly in front of the green based on the tee box.
On the left side, a sea of bunkers are present. But with the bunkers slightly elevated, players are asking to get down and up more than up and down. As for the layup, the creek runs back into the fairway, making a long-iron shot available, but needing to be in control.
No. 15 is a par 5 that has seen more danger added since the recent renovation. Nicklaus moved the fairway over to the left, bringing a creek along that side into play on the tee shots or a layup. Up by the green, the creek meanders to the right, waiting for balls short or missed right that don’t smash into two protective bunkers.
The par 5 is only 561 yards and traditionally plays as one of the easiest holes on the course, if not the easiest, but as Nicklaus noted after the renovation, “We will see a lot of eagle and birdie chances here, but also a fair amount of 6s and 7s.”
No. 16, a 200-yard par 3 over water, has long been a trademark hole of Muirfield Village. However, during the renovation, Nicklaus actually had to correct his own work. After redesigning the hole for the 2013 Presidents Cup, Nicklaus noted the green struggled to hold shots, especially on the back left. It soon became clear that the left side pitched away from the players.
To fix this, Nicklaus took eight inches from the middle of the green and added eight inches to the left. The green now runs toward the players, holding shots as he had originally intended.
No. 17 traditionally played as a challenge due to its brute strength. At 485 yards with a creek in front and bunkers protecting the left and right, the par 4 demanded two precise strikes. Nicklaus purposely made the hole even more difficult by narrowing the fairway. And this is not just simply done by growing out some grass. Nicklaus had fairway bunkers moved in tighter, bringing those more consistently into play off the tee.
As for No. 18, commonly the hardest hole in the tournament, Nicklaus left much of the meat of the hole the same, as the 480-yard dogleg right requires players to avoid the creek on the left and the bunkers at the corner on the tee shot.
The new challenge may come on the green. Previously, the green allowed only one available back-left hole location, so Nicklaus had the area softened and lengthened out with less pitch to allow more options for pins, while making it difficult to hold the green. That is not to mention two deep bunkers await if players come up short on the left side.
It’s simple. If you can avoid all of those problems down the stretch, you might win.