DUBLIN, Ohio – Of all the curveballs the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown at the PGA Tour, the Muirfield Village fortnight is unquestionably the easiest to digest.
When John Deere pulled the plug on this year’s event because of coronavirus concerns, the Tour wanted a replacement event and Jack’s Place checked all the right boxes.
The course is widely cited by Tour types as one of the circuit’s best and being able to keep players in one place for two weeks helps secure the makeshift bubble. In theory, Muirfield Village was the perfect place for a back-to-back; although, in practice, the subtle setup challenges were evident last week at the Workday Charity Open.
Last week’s setup included slower green speeds, shorter rough to start the tournament and some new tee locations that, at least anecdotally, produced slightly lower scores.
Last week’s scoring average was 71.85, compared to a 72.08 average at last year’s Memorial, and players generally agreed the course didn’t have its normal bite.
“The original setup this week was intended to be easier, softer greens, a little slower, and then they're going to let the rough grow to next week and ultimately kind of dry the greens out, firm up, get them faster,” said Rickie Fowler, who tied for 22nd at the Workday event. “It's supposed to be harder next week, but that's all going to be kind of weather dependent, and there's nothing we can control on that front.”
The best example of this contrasting setup plan was on the 14th hole. Following Thursday’s first round, when the par 4 played to its normal 375 yards, officials slowly pushed the tee up each day with the final-round yardage coming in at 308 yards.
The move set up a compelling exchange on Sunday when eventual winner Collin Morikawa hit his tee shot 11 feet from the hole on the green and Justin Thomas, who lost in a playoff, laid up and hit his approach to 5 feet. Both players made birdie.
As the week wore on, players said the greens started to pick up some pace and the rough was approaching its normal length in preparation for next the Memorial.
“Obviously the [yardage] wasn't quite there in regards to some of the holes, like 14 was up, some of the other holes were up a little bit,” said Jason Day, who lives in the area and plays Muirfield Village regularly, after tying for seventh on Sunday. “But for the most part, the greens started getting a little bit firmer and they started getting a little bit faster. It's nice to be able to play today to try and get a feel for how it's going to be next Thursday.”
Players weren’t dismissing the Workday event, but Day wasn’t the only player on Sunday looking ahead to the showcase setup. The course was closed on Monday for maintenance and Sunday’s final round provided players who weren’t contending a high-stakes chance to prepare for the Memorial.
“It almost kind of felt like a practice round to be honest with you. Especially with no fans out here, knowing we're playing here two weeks in a row, kind of feels like we're tuning up for next week,” said Gary Woodland, who tied for fifth. “The golf course was phenomenal, it really was. If you're going to play two weeks in a row, there's no better place to do it. This is one of my favorite stops of the year, and I'm glad we're here two weeks.”
That idea was echoed by many of Woodland’s contemporaries. For Day, the back-to-back events served as a rare opportunity to spend some time at home in the middle of the Tour season. And even with the different vibe of back-to-back weeks in the same spot, most agreed Muirfield Village was the perfect spot for the doubleheader.
“It's weird because I didn't pack up to leave after my round today, and so I'm in my hotel room for another seven days, but there's a lot worse places we could play for two weeks in a row,” said Billy Horschel, who closed with a 66 and tied for seventh place. “For me, I love this place. I've always played pretty well here at Muirfield, and I was excited when the schedule came out that we'd be playing two weeks in a row.”
Perhaps the weirdest moment of the week was as Patrick Cantlay completed a final-round 65 to tie for seventh place. Cantlay won last year’s Memorial and he was asked if it was awkward being back at Muirfield Village for two weeks to defend his title.
“I try not to think about it, really,” he said with a laugh. “I figured an extra week here at Muirfield Village was good for me.”
The decision was also good for the Tour and turned a challenging situation to replace an event into an opportunity to spend two weeks at one of the circuit’s most popular courses.