DUBLIN, Ohio – In the spring of 1974 Richard Nixon was president, the nationwide speed limit was set to 55 mph, Cannonade won the Kentucky Derby and Jack Nicklaus opened Muirfield Village Golf Club.
Within weeks Nixon was impeached, the speed limit has long since changed and Cannonade failed to convert his next two Triple Crown starts. But Muirfield Village and Nicklaus’ vision for the club that would host his own Memorial tournament endure.
This is the 38th playing of the Memorial, and in 40 years Nicklaus freely admits the layout that the world’s best players will set out on Thursday bears little resemblance to the version that Roger Maltbie won on in 1976.
“It’s kind of amazing, 40 years, it seems like a long time. And, frankly, it is,” Nicklaus said on Wednesday during his annual State of the Golden Bear press conference.
Everything about Muirfield Village and the Memorial has evolved, from the purse – Maltbie won $40,000 in ’76 compared to the $1.116 million that this week’s champion will pocket – to the golf course, which will play 365 yards longer than it did during that inaugural tournament.
Even the patriarch’s role has changed.
“Back in those days I was pretty much chief cook and bottle washer,” Nicklaus laughed. “I sort of was involved in everything.”
Nicklaus then broke into the kind of anecdote that makes his annual spring Q&A a can’t-miss stop for those who carry notebooks.
He recalled filling caddie Angelo Argea’s bib with assorted trash he would pick up as he played his rounds and pleading with the superintendent to be careful with green speeds “in case something happens.”
Something happened in 1979, when a breezy and hot afternoon turned Sunday’s final round into a competitive pile up when Nicklaus closed with a 79 and greens speeds exceeded 17 on the Stimpmeter.
“Everybody squawked bloody murder,” he recalled.
Officially, Nicklaus has five children and 22 grandchildren, but Muirfield Village has been every bit his progeny. Throughout the years, the Golden Bear has tinkered and tweaked the layout to improve and change with the times.
Nicklaus will, with very little prodding, walk through every change as well as every challenge. The chief culprit throughout the years has been the ever-increasing distance that the game’s top players hit the ball.
“I certainly didn't expect the golf ball to go 50 yards further,” he said. “We've adapted and adjusted to that the best we can with what piece of property we had.”
Even this year’s event will feature a few changes, including a new tee at the 18th hole that will play 40 yards longer than it did at last year’s Memorial, and he’s not done.
“I'll probably take about half a dozen bunkers out of the right of 18 because I don't need them anymore,” he said.
The one thing that hasn’t changed throughout the decades is Nicklaus’ vision for his tournament, which ranks just below the majors and World Golf Championships on the Tour dance card.
Much like he did throughout his legendary career, Nicklaus has always had a good handle on what he wanted his tournament, and his golf course, to be – nothing more, nothing less.
“We positioned ourselves to try to be a service to the game of golf, no different than what Augusta started out to do,” Nicklaus said. “That was sort of my guiding light to what I wanted to do.”
Much like Augusta National, there is a reverence for the Memorial that transcends your normal PGA Tour stop. Among the Legend Slam events – the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Byron Nelson Championship and Colonial – the Memorial is the clear front-runner.
Much of that has to do with the tournament’s history, some with the golf course, but most of that devotion is vested in the tournament host.
“It’s exciting to be able to play here and have the opportunity to win in front of Jack,” said Jason Day, who now lives in the area. “That would be a great honor.”
Even Tiger Woods, who has been on the DL since having back surgery on March 31, called Nicklaus Wednesday morning. “He was saying that he felt bad about not being able to be here,” Nicklaus said.
It will be Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, which Woods is forever tied to, that will always define his him; but the Memorial and Muirfield Village rank as a solid second on that historic resume.
“I think we've done very well. I'm certainly not unhappy with anything that's happened I'm very happy with where we are,” he said in his signature understated style.
Those in this week’s field would say he’s done much better than that.