A superlative test for average golfers, but never a subject of postcards at one of America's premier courses, the 437-yard, par-4 hole effectively met an abrupt end last August.
'I've sort of felt like it's been a little bit of a blah,' said Nicklaus, the course designer and winner of 18 major championships. 'There's nothing wrong with the hole, but it's not very hard. I don't think there's as much excitement in it.'
Nicklaus destroyed it with bulldozers and earthmovers, almost on the spur of the moment. Muirfield greens superintendent Mike McBride said Nicklaus had been talking about starting over on 17 for the past few years, then tore up the existing hole in an eight-hour span late last summer.
Before the 2002 Memorial, Nicklaus said he was considering dramatic changes to the hole. He grinned as he said it all depended 'on what my mood is next week.'
In its place he created a 478-yard, par-4 that bears little resemblance to its predecessor. The new 17th will make its debut before an international field next week at the Memorial.
Nicklaus doesn't deny he's a perfectionist. He is constantly tinkering with Muirfield Village and the almost 300 other courses he and his design group have drawn up over the years. He'll build up a spectator mound here, deepen a trap there. Seldom do the changes take on the scope of this one, particularly in a year in which every green was reseeded and 10 of the 18 were torn up and recontoured.
Not everyone at Muirfield Village has the same vision as Nicklaus.
'He'll see something and he'll make a change. You're kind of going, 'Nah. I don't quite understand that,'' Muirfield Village pro Larry Dornisch said. 'Then when it's done, you'll go, 'Wow. That's just worked out great.''
The hole previously known as 17 had a waste bunker that hugged the left side of the fairway for more than 200 yards. The landing area fell away to a valley. On the other side of the valley was a docile, sloping green protected by deep bunkers.
Nicklaus said risk wasn't a factor on the old 17.
'I don't have any problem with birdies,' Nicklaus said. 'But there's not really a gamble of any kind there. It's a pretty good-sized fairway and the green is fairly benign. If you miss the green, you end up in one of the bunkers and then it's a pretty easy up and down.'
It was Nicklaus the player who provided one of the most memorable moments at his own tournament on the old 17th.
In 1984, he stepped to the 'blah' 17th tied for the Memorial lead with Andy Bean at 9 under. His drive sailed right, some 75 yards away from the fairway and near a fence that separates an upscale housing development from the course. The ball ricocheted high off the cart path, pinballed around a deck and ended up out of bounds under a picnic table. A bronze plaque still marks the spot where it came to rest.
'I couldn't believe I made that shot,' Nicklaus said later. 'The first thing that ran through my mind was that I was going to lose the tournament. I said to myself, 'The only way I've got a chance is to make birdie with the next ball.''
So he did.
Nicklaus reloaded on the tee and drove into the fairway this time, hit a 6-iron to 25 feet and holed the putt. Bean then missed a 4-footer for par on the final hole and Nicklaus won the sudden-death playoff on the third hole -- again the 17th.
'I had enough excitement on 17 myself -- the houses were too close for me,' he said with a smile.
So far this spring, members have recorded exactly one birdie on the hole.
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