Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Ryan Moore
DUBLIN, Ohio — This week’s Memorial Tournament ranks among the most important, most prestigious events on the annual PGA Tour calendar.
The tournament host and founder is none other than Jack Nicklaus, whose presence alone is enough to automatically elevate its profile. The venue is Muirfield Village, which might rank behind only Augusta National on the scale of Fairways You Can Eat Off Of.
Even the PGA Tour acknowledges that this tourney is more advanced on the hierarchy than others, announcing four years ago that the winner of the Memorial (along with the Arnold Palmer Invitational champion) would receive a three-year exemption instead of the two years offered to winners of other events.
“Our tournament has always been a significant tournament,” said the admittedly biased Nicklaus, who added, “Most of the players [feel that way] or they wouldn’t be here.”
As a result, we tend to think of this trophy being reserved only for superstars who are playing at the top of their games.
Like so many ideas in professional golf, this one is skewed by the accomplishments of a single player.
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A five-time winner of the Memorial, Woods owns so much success here that his title total equals that of the second- and third-winningest players in tournament history.
None of those victories should have come as a surprise. Woods entered his five wins as the world’s top-ranked player on three occasions, the second-ranked player once and, in his most recent win here in 2012, the ninth-ranked player.
Again, this is enough to skew the narrative.
The list of other winners at Muirfield Village is hardly a group of no-names, but when we investigate the numbers, we can understand that very rarely over the years has a highly ranked player not named Tiger won this tournament.
Here’s the list of champions since Woods’ first victory here in 1999, with their world rankings at the time:
1999: Tiger Woods 2nd
2000: Tiger Woods 1st
2001: Tiger Woods 1st
2002: Jim Furyk 23rd
2003: Kenny Perry 15th
2004: Ernie Els 3rd
2005: Bart Bryant 80th
2006: Carl Pettersson 51st
2007: K.J. Choi 32nd
2008: Kenny Perry 73rd
2009: Tiger Woods 1st
2010: Justin Rose 66th
2011: Steve Stricker 8th
2012: Tiger Woods 9th
2013: Matt Kuchar 9th
2014: Hideki Matsuyama 24th
2015: David Lingmerth 212th
2016: William McGirt 102nd
2017: Jason Dufner 65th
Of the 14 non-Tiger champions during this era, only three — Els, Stricker and Kuchar — were ranked inside the top 10 when they won this tournament. Players such as Furyk, Choi and Matsuyama were hardly out-of-nowhere winners, but none was inside the top 20 when they won. Even bigger names such as Rose and Dufner ranked outside the top 60.
Tally ’em up and these other 14 winners were ranked an average of 54.5. (That’s just about equal to the current ranking of Luke List, who is in this week’s field.)
If we remove the biggest outlier in Lingmerth, these winners averaged a ranking of 42.3 before their wins here. (The current 42? That would be Cameron Smith, also in this week’s field.)
What does it all mean? I won’t suggest you should completely overlook the gaggle of big-name players here this week — and yes, gaggle is the proper term. In total, eight of the world’s top-10 players are at Muirfield Village, which means plenty of opportunities to lower the average winner’s ranking from the above list.
If you’re looking to pick one of those stars, I’d give Justin Thomas (+1300) — the current No. 1 — a slight edge. He finished T-4 here last year and could be on the verge of even bigger things.
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Jason Day (+1250) is obviously in form and playing in his adopted home state at his home club this week, which should bode well. And then there’s Rickie Fowler (+1900), whom I’ve touted so much this year that I’m almost certain he’ll win only when I finally don’t mention him.
Outside of those players, though, let’s stick with that growing trend at this tournament and pick seven players a little farther off the radar who should provide some value this week.