For years, the best pros in the game flocked annually to the Byron Nelson Championship and coveted the ritual of shaking hands with Nelson, the finest gentleman in golf, after they holed out Sunday. Nelson died in 2006.
These days, the winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational is greeted at the finish and receives the trophy from Arnie, who brought golf into the television age and is considered the most popular player ever.
This week, the champion of the Memorial Tournament will have Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer in the history of the game, waiting for him behind the 18th green at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.
“To walk off the green and to greet Mr. Nicklaus and have him congratulate me, that’s something I’ll certainly never forget,” Matt Kuchar said after his victory in the tournament last year, when he looked over to see his 3-year-old son, Carson, high-five the Golden Bear after watching Dad sink a 21-foot putt to win.
“To see the champions that have won here, and now to put my name on that list of champions and to put my name anywhere in association with Mr. Nicklaus, it’s his tournament, it is such a great honor.”
Of course, Tiger Woods has earned that honor a record five times, winning the tournament in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009 and 2012, although he won’t be at Muirfield Village this week because he is recovering from back surgery.
Woods, something of a golf historian, realized the magnitude of the moment when the won the event two years ago for his 73rd victory on the PGA Tour, tying Nicklaus for second on the list.
“Well, it’s special,” said Woods, who has run his total to 79, three behind Sam Snead’s record of 82. “To do it at age 36 is not too shabby. Something I’m very proud of, and to do it here with Jack watching on the last hole, I think he was watching.
“He was there as I walked off the green. It was nice to see Jack there. He means a lot to all of us as players, and we all looked up to him, and he’s the greatest champion who’s ever lived.”
The Memorial is even a draw to international players. Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland won last week in the BMW PGA Championship, but he will make the trip back from England to play in the Memorial for the fifth consecutive year.
McIlroy, 24, had the event on his schedule since Nicklaus saw the kid and his father in the parking lot at a shopping mall in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., during the 2009 Honda Classic.
“Hi,” the Golden Bear said to Rory. “I thought that was you.”
The following year during the Honda, Nicklaus invited McIlroy to lunch and explained to him in about 90 minutes how to win and lose major championships, having captured a record 18 in addition to finishing second 19 times.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” said McIlroy, who won the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship but also has given away a couple majors. “It’s a nice pressure to have knowing that the greatest player ever at the moment thinks that you’re going to do pretty good.
“He said he always put a lot of pressure on himself. He expected to play well. He expected to be up there all the time in a position to win. And he said, ‘I expect you to do the same thing.’”
Jim Furyk has played 18 times in the Memorial and won the tournament in 2002 among his six top-10 finishes in the tournament. However, the fact that he plays well on the course and that Nicklaus is waiting for him at the finish are not the only reasons he keeps going back to Muirfield Village.
It has to do with another person who is important in his life.
“Most pros love playing in the Memorial Tournament because it’s Jack Nicklaus’ event, the course is terrific, and the clubhouse has the best food on Tour,” said Furyk, who finished one stroke behind Woods at Muirfield Village in 2009. “But the main reason I’ll always show up in Dublin, Ohio, this time of year is a sentimental one: It’s where I met Tabitha (his wife) in 1995.”
So win or lose, Furyk knows someone will be waiting for him.