DUBLIN, Ohio – Jack Nicklaus called the field at this week’s Memorial Tournament “probably as good a field as we’ve ever had.”
“They’re all here,” he said on Tuesday in a press conference ahead of the tournament he hosts at Muirfield Village Golf Club, the club he built and that has played host to an annual PGA Tour stop since 1976.
Jack’s Place traditionally attracts a star-studded field regardless of status but being elevated to a designated event with a $20 million purse hasn’t hurt the 120-man field. Indeed, seven of the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking and 38 of the top 50 are in the field as well as 25 of the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings and 22 of the 27 players that have won on Tour this season.
He added, “For all intents and purposes all the top players in the world are here.”
But those impressive figures don’t include two of the four reigning major champions — British Open winner Cameron Smith and PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka — and regular participants such as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and 2018 winner Bryson DeChambeau.
Nicklaus said he sent a congratulatory note to Koepka after he won the PGA two weeks ago at Oak Hill, where he won the Wanamaker Trophy in 1980. Nicklaus has tried his best to stay out of the confrontation between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, but he has an opinion on most every subject and never has been too shy to tell anyone what he really thinks.
“There were certain players that it was probably the right thing for,” Nicklaus said of joining LIV. “It probably spurred the PGA Tour, I don’t think there’s any question about that, either, to move it to greater heights. But it wasn’t for me, it wasn’t for what my legacy was. Obviously, I pretty much started what the Tour is out here.”
Golfers wait to tee off during a practice round for the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club. (Photo: Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch)
Asked if he was disappointed not to have the reigning major winners in the field this week, he said, “I don’t even consider those guys part of the game anymore. I don’t mean that in a nasty way. This is a PGA Tour event and we have the best field we can possibly have for a PGA Tour event for those who are eligible to be here. The other guys made a choice of what they did and where they’ve gone and we don’t even talk about it.”
Nicklaus added that six or seven LIV players are members of the Bears Club, the private club he built in South Florida, and that all of the players have had their membership renewed and remain active at the club.
“It’s just where they chose to play golf,” Nicklaus said. “I wish them all well.”
Asked if he would permit LIV players to return to compete in the Memorial in future years, he said, “It’s not up to me.” He continued: “I don’t know if I’d let them back or not. They made a choice about what they want to do and that’s what the rules are.”
Nicklaus played in an era where professional golf for most of the players was a subsistence living. He still remembers earning $33.33 for his first check at the 1962 Los Angeles Open for finishing 50th.
“The first year I played you made the cut — 70 players made the cut, but they only paid 50. And I made money in every tournament I played in my first year. And I had a lot of ’em that I just made the cut,” he recalled. “I shot 64 in the last round in Pensacola to make last money. I think I shot 65 last round in Palm Springs to make maybe last money or close to it. You know, in those days to pick up $250, which is what we were making when we would just make the cut, you know, you wanted that $250. That took care of another week or two of playing golf.”
Was there ever a point where he looked at the money the pros are making today and thought it was staggering?
“I look at it every day, are you kidding me?” he said. “It is staggering.”
But for Nicklaus, winning was the ultimate prize.
“I was all about how good I could be in a sport and money just took care of itself,” he explained. “Some guys, they might not even care about playing golf, they’re just good at it. It’s a means to an end for them. If that’s what it is, that’s fine. Guys who have stayed for the most part are guys that play the game of golf for the game of golf and for the sport of it and the competition. To me, that’s what the thing is all about. Are they getting rewarded for that? Absolutely, they are, I think that’s great. We never made any money playing golf. What’s my lifetime earnings on the regular tour, $5 million?”
Nicklaus guessed his retirement fund from the PGA Tour was $237,000 and that Tiger Woods’s would be $100 million.
“We had to play golf to make a name to go make a living. If I had been playing today would I be doing golf course design, would I be doing other things?” Nicklaus mused. “These guys are really making a fantastic living and setting up their families for a lifetime by really playing the game well.”