DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Jon Rahm was motoring to victory along the back nine of Muirfield Village last year at the Memorial, and just as compelling was the activity on the front nine.
Heavy equipment was inside the ropes, ripping out huge strips of turf.
Rahm returned to what tournament host Jack Nicklaus described as a new golf course, even though so much of it might look the same.
“It’s Jack. I know he’s always trying to make this a little bit more challenging for us, and he’s definitely succeeded in making the golf course more difficult,” Rahm said Wednesday.
Nicklaus described the latest project as his “last bite at the apple,” and it started with a nibble.
The original thought to Chad Marks, the golf course superintendent, was to rid the greens of the poa annua grass. From there, the conversation turned to the fairways, and then the irrigation system that was due to be replaced. And while they were at it, the bunkers were in need of an upgrade.
Nicklaus told him, “What you’re trying to say is you want to build a new golf course.”
“They went in and we just obliterated the place,” Nicklaus said. “And what you got out there is what you see now.”
It wasn’t all about length — Muirfield Village is about 90 yards longer on the card — but creating new strategies on some of the holes, particularly the par 5s.
Most startling to the eye is the 15th hole, which previously was an uphill drive. The big hitters who could reach the crest and get a little more roll had a view of the green, where a creek meandered along the right side.
That has been lowered 20 feet with three bunkers on the right side, feeding the hole toward the left and the start of a creek. The mound separating the the greenside bunkers and the creek was removed — anything right of the bunkers now will be wet.
On the front nine, the green on the par-5 fifth was moved back about 30 yards and effectively cut in half, making it the smallest green on the course. Rahm was in perfect position during his pro-am round Wednesday. A year ago, that would be a 4-iron to the green. Now it’s a 5-wood, and it was just short.
“I feel like we’re going to see a lot more people laying up,” Rahm said.
It might require some players who have been at Muirfield Village for more than a decade to get used to the subtle changes, especially on some of the greens.
“I loved the golf course before. I still love it now,” Justin Thomas said. “I think it’s a great track, a great test. And it’s a place where you can go out and shoot 64 or 65 or 66, but it’s also a place where you can shoot 74 or 75 just as easily if you’re not playing well. I think this golf course still has that aspect to it.”
What hasn’t changed is the thick grass that frames the fairways and Memorial having one of the strongest fields of regular PGA Tour events. Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player, and Brooks Koepka are among those sitting out. He is playing next week in South Carolina ahead of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Rahm and Collin Morikawa can make a case for serving as co-defending champions. Morikawa won at Muirfield Village a week before the Memorial last year, a one-time event to replace the John Deere Classic when tournaments last summer were still coping with the pandemic.
The Memorial was on the verge of having spectators until a week before the tournament. Now it has opened its waiting list for its most loyal fans, and capacity could be anywhere between 25% to 75%.
“Everything we heard last year was crickets,” Rahm said. “There was no applause, no cheers.”
Crickets have given way to cicadas.
The large insects with orange eyes emerge from the ground every 17 years. The last time at the Memorial in 2004, it was not unusual for them to attach onto the shaft of a driver in the middle of a swing. More than anything, they are noisy.
Patrick Reed wore white pants during a practice round Tuesday and was surprised to look down and see a few on his leg. He heard the full chorus on the back of the seventh tee.
“They were rocking,” Reed said. “It was really loud and they were going. But they’re fine because it’s just the steady kind of noise. So it almost feels like just white noise. So it’s not that bad. But it definitely makes it more lively out there. You definitely hear them.”