Jon Rahm’s opponent had him on the run. It was Sunday afternoon at the 2020 Memorial Tournament, and the Spaniard was on the cusp of arguably the biggest win of his young career. Clinging to a four-stroke Sunday lead on the back nine, Rahm trod carefully. On the surface, he glistened with sweat. Beneath it, he was locked in the late stages of a high-stakes chess match.
Rahm’s sparring partner, Muirfield Village, was no pushover. Conditions were tough, with pins that were barely on the putting surfaces. Thick rough and a stiff breeze left pros hacking and cussing their way to scores in the high 70s and 80s. From home, golf fans watched with glee.
Gone for at least a weekend were the days of final-round 63s on the PGA Tour. To win on Sunday, Rahm would need to play by the rules of tournament host and Muirfield Village designer Jack Nicklaus — he’d have to defeat not only the field but also the course.
None of that mattered to the group of a few dozen who’d gathered on the front nine. As Rahm metaphorically battled Muirfield Village, the crew behind him was literally tearing it apart. One by one, the group walked over to Muirfield’s preciously manicured green complexes and began uprooting them. The sun had not yet set on the year’s Memorial Tournament, but for these workers the focus already had shifted to 2021.
This week, the fruits of that group’s labor will be on display as the Memorial returns to the newly redesigned Muirfield Village. The effort was spearheaded by Nicklaus himself, with a supporting cast that included Chris Cochran from Nicklaus Design and Muirfield Village director of grounds operations Chad Mark to help see the vision through to reality. (Nicklaus Design and GOLF.com are affiliates of 8AM Golf.)
“When my dad first mentioned that he wanted to come back to Muirfield Village, I shook my head,” Nicklaus’ son, Jack Jr., said in One Last Bite, a new documentary from GOLF.com that chronicles the redesign (see top of this article). “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me, Dad? This is one of the greatest golf courses, in my opinion, of all-time.’ But then as I started hearing his thoughts and his process on what he wanted to do, it was absolutely amazing. He’s always had the ability to step back and see things from 30,000 feet.”
Technically, this is only Muirfield’s second formal renovation, but the number of tweaks the course has undergone since it first opened in 1974 is far greater. Nicklaus — the course’s creator, designer, benefactor and one-time course-record holder — has maintained a reputation for regularly altering the setup in order to properly combat the advancements of the pro game.
The two-year, two-part renovation process began on the back nine in 2019 and shifted to the front nine on the Sunday of Rahm’s win.
“My legacy really is here,” said Nicklaus, who is 81. “This is what the world sees on television. This is what the players see. This is set up for people to come here, to see it and play.”
Nicklaus has long viewed the course as a part-passion project, part-legacy-builder. He’s been involved with Muirfield Village in some form or another since the mid-1960s, when he bought the land upon which the course sits with the goal of building a gift for his hometown, Columbus, Ohio.
The most recent edits reflect all that has changed in golf in the time since. Structural changes, including the installation of a sub-air system, were made to the entire course, and all but two holes saw architectural updates. The course now plays 163 yards longer, tipping out at just shy of 7,400 yards. In addition, each of Muirfield Village’s 18 greens was resurfaced from a bentgrass/poa annua hybrid to solely bentgrass, and every green increased its overall pinnable area.
For the membership, Nicklaus says his team examined each tee box to ensure the course maintained consistent strategic themes and challenges from each set of tees. As a result, the forward tee boxes are nearly 250 yards shorter.
The Nicklaus team worked to create a course that is simultaneously more playable for its everyday membership and more challenging for the game’s best players. That meant widening fairways in the landing areas most amateur golfers reach while tightening them in the spots where the longest hitters fly their drives. Pin positions will also play a key role in the process of making the course more playable (or more toothy), depending upon the audience.
“I don’t think when we’re done here it’s going to be a tougher golf course, I think it’s going to be a better golf course,” Nicklaus said. “That’s what I want here. I want a better course for our membership. Make sure the members can play the golf course, that I haven’t added anything stupid for them. But also that I have the ability to move the tees back, hide the pins and have the Memorial Tournament.”
This week, the new-look venue will have its coming-out party when seven of the top 10 players in the world — Rahm among them — descend on Muirfield for the 2021 Memorial. The defending champ will be tested in ways that he was not a year ago.
Or at least Nicklaus hopes that’ll be the case. After all, that’s why he has regularly tweaked Muirfield Village since the 70s, and why he sent a crew out to tear up the greens on tournament Sunday last July. Building a course is easy, building a course-design legacy is not — even for the greatest player ever.
“When somebody comes in from the outside to play Muirfield, I’d like for them to say not, ‘Where can I go play tomorrow?'” Nicklaus said. “But more like, ‘What time can I get out there tomorrow?'”