DUBLIN, Ohio – It was hard to read the eyes of Jack Nicklaus behind his sunglasses, and maybe that was a good thing. He was in his customary spot behind the 18th green at Muirfield Village as he waited to see who would win the Memorial.
Or who would do the best job of not losing.
It’s rare to get such beautiful weather over four days at the Memorial. An ugly finish? That has become all too common this year.
The Sunday follies of so many top players – most of them major champions – stand out even more in the absence of Tiger Woods, who is recovering from back surgery that has kept him away from golf for the last three months.
Without Woods around, all anyone has are memories, particularly around a place like Muirfield Village. He won his fifth Memorial title two years ago with three birdies on the last four holes. One year he was in a battle with Paul Azinger, tied for the lead early in the final round. Woods ended up winning by seven.
Over the last four months, a list that includes major champions Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Bubba Watson has shown that it’s either hard to win on the PGA Tour or that Woods was really, really good at it.
Probably a little of both.
Woods went nearly 15 years before losing a lead greater than two shots going into the final round. Graeme McDowell rallied from four behind to beat Woods in the Chevron World Challenge in 2010.
His conversion rate on the PGA Tour with at least a share of the 54-hole lead is 93 percent. Even though Woods hasn’t sustained a full season of great play in five years, his reputation as golf’s greatest closer in history takes on a new appreciation in times like this.
Consider the final round at the Memorial.
Watson failed to hold an outright lead for the second time this year because of mistakes on the back nine. He bogeyed two of the last three holes in Phoenix. At the Memorial, it was a pair of tee shots that did him in, particularly that monster drive over the trees, off the property and into a neighborhood.
Scott was in position for his second straight PGA Tour win. He was tied for the lead until he put his tee shot in the water on the 12th (double bogey), took two shots to get out of a bunker on the 14th (bogey), and then had some bad luck when his wedge to the par-5 15th hit the flag and bounced back toward the fairway (bogey).
The winner was Hideki Matsuyama, and here’s how he got it done. He hit his tee shot into the water on the 16th for double bogey to lose a two-shot lead. From the 17th fairway, he went over the green and made bogey to fall out of the lead. And then he pushed his tee shot toward the big tree right of the 18th fairway, lightly slammed his driver to the turf (the head broke off), only to find the ball had hit the tree and bounced back to the fairway.
From there, he smashed 7-iron at the flag and made birdie to get into a playoff.
He beat Kevin Na, who hooked his drive into the water.
These things happen in golf. They just seem to be happening more than usual this year.
McIlroy had a two-shot lead at the Honda Classic until hitting it fat out of a bunker and into the water for double bogey on the 16th hole, and making bogey from a bunker on the 17th hole. He hit as good a shot that has been struck all year on the 18th, a 5-wood over the water to 12 feet, only to miss the eagle putt and then lose in a four-man playoff. The playoff hole was a par 5. Russell Henley was the only player to make birdie.
Scott, in his first chance to reach No. 1, had a seven-shot lead going into the weekend at Bay Hill. He closed with a 76 and finished two shots behind Matt Every. Matt Kuchar blew two good chances in Texas with mistakes rarely seen from him, and he might have blown another chance to win except for holing out from a bunker on the 18th at Hilton Head. Phil Mickelson was right there at Quail Hollow until missing four putts from the 4-foot range and closing with a 76.
The lesson is it’s not easy to win on the PGA Tour. The reminder is Woods made it look that way.