Far more than a vanity project or a way to market his name, the Memorial Tournament has grown into one of the premier stops on the PGA TOUR. And there's no reason to expect that to end once its famous, 67-year-old founder is no longer micromanaging every detail.
'I'd like to think the event can stand on its own two feet without me,' Nicklaus said Tuesday, two days before the 32nd Memorial tees off with eight of the top 10 players in the world rankings in the field. 'It is set in place that I can be here or I don't have to be here.'
Nicklaus was enthralled the first time he played in the Masters in 1959 as a callow 19-year-old amateur. He dreamed of someday leaving a legacy similar to what Bobby Jones created among the dogwoods and azaleas of Augusta, Ga. Years later, after Nicklaus become the game's dominant player, he began to follow through on his plans.
As a kid growing up nearby in suburban Columbus, Nicklaus strolled the farmland where Muirfield Village Golf Club now sits astride upscale housing developments.
'It was not very big -- it was like 250 acres or something,' he said of the land he asked several high school and college friends to look at. Smiling, he added, 'It was a place that I used to come up here as a kid and hunt. I never shot anything, but I hunted.'
Investors and friends put up money and a $9 million public offering raised the funds to start building Muirfield Village in the rolling hills on the northwest edge of Ohio's capital.
Now it is considered a jewel of golf-course design and is one of the most popular stops on tour. Dublin, which used to be a simple crossroads, has become a bustling city.
Nicklaus hasn't won anything of note since the 1986 Masters, yet it still means something to the world's best players that the Memorial is his baby.
Carl Pettersson said he had two favorite memories from his victory a year ago at the Memorial.
'I chipped in on No. 11 for a birdie, and then shaking Mr. Nicklaus' hand on 18,' he said.
The players come out because of Nicklaus' legend, but also because of everything Nicklaus has done to make the Memorial a home away from home.
'The tournament's got its own momentum, through the years of having many, many distinguished players winning it,' Stuart Appleby said. 'It's created its own inertia. Much like the Byron Nelson has. Everyone knows who Byron Nelson is. That's when you're known as a legend.'
Nicklaus played in the first 30 Memorials and won two of them. A winner of 18 major championships and a total of 73 TOUR titles, he concedes that he's now a grandfather, father, husband and golf-course designer more than a player.
'I just don't play anymore, and so to put my golf game out for public display is not necessarily something I want to do,' he said.
He will participate in the pro-am on Wednesday, reluctantly.
'There will be a lot of people here that have been friends of mine for a long time, and they'll see my half a swing that I've got left, and that will be about it,' he said, grinning. 'They'll watch me for about two shots and say, 'Geez, wasn't it nice to see Jack out here?' and then they'll go watch somebody play golf.'
The Memorial will end up being yet another way Nicklaus is remembered.
'The Masters really has lived beyond Jones,' he said. 'His legacy is there and will always be there -- and mine will always be here.'