The two biggest figures at the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, managed to carve out some private time at the back of the 10th tee amid a mass of people Wednesday at Muirfield Village.
Some of it was just catching up. The two most prolific winners of major championship had not seen each other since April at the Masters.
And the tournament host had some encouraging words.
Nicklaus complimented Woods on his swing, and then told him what Woods has felt for the last few months.
“He was saying that my swing is starting to look a little bit better,” Woods said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m really not that far away,’ and he totally agreed. He just kept urging me to be patient with it because he could see that I’ve made some pretty big strides this year, and not far away from putting it all together.”
The Memorial presents such an opportunity.
Woods has won at the course Jack built a record five times. The most recent victory was in 2012, when he took command from behind the 16th green by turning a potential bogey into a chip-in birdie that Nicklaus still thinks is one of the best shots he ever saw.
The most recent appearance? That’s different.
Woods last played the Memorial in 2015. In the last few months before a series of back surgeries, Woods shot 85 in the third round, the worst score of his career. Because an uneven number of players made the cut, Woods teed off Sunday morning as a single and shot 74.
“I tried, and unfortunately on this golf course, hitting it as bad as I did, it just wasn’t good enough,” Woods said.
As for playing as a single? Woods smiled.
“I didn’t want to have anyone watch me play the way I was playing,” he said.
Rory McIlroy was standing at the side of the room as Woods spoke, listening to a player with 90 victories worldwide talking about the time he signed his name to an 85 on his scorecard. McIlroy recalled his highest round at 83 in the South African Open in 2007, his seventh tournament as a pro.
McIlroy climbed the steps to the stage as Woods was leaving and said to him, “Aside from your 85, you have won here five times.”
Those are the memories Woods hopes to draw from when the Memorial begins Thursday on a Muirfield Village course in its usual mint condition. The tournament is two weeks before the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, and it has the kind of field that makes it feel like a mini-major.
Only two players from the top 10 in the world are missing: Jon Rahm and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka.
Justin Rose is coming off a victory at Colonial, his ninth consecutive year with a victory somewhere in the world. Justin Thomas is making his debut at No. 1 in the world, an achievement that doesn’t come with a trophy but one that meant enough to him that he stayed up later than usual when he got home after The Players Championship to see the world ranking page with his name at the top. He took a screen shot.
“Seeing every golfer in the world behind my name is a pretty fun thing,” Thomas said.
Dustin Johnson, who doesn’t appear to be concerned with much in life, conceded he was eager to get back the No. 1 ranking he held for 15 months. This is his first tournament since he lost the No. 1 spot to Thomas.
Nicklaus was around the first and 10th tee boxes during the pro-am to greet them all, a list that includes Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
Woods has made strides since his return from a fourth back surgery, including a runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship in March, and an exciting charge at Bay Hill that ended with a tee shot out of bounds on the 16th hole.
Nicklaus suggested on Tuesday that Woods has to learn anew how to win because it has been five years since his last victory.
McIlroy understood what he meant, having gone 18 months between victories until he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. McIlroy started this year with good chances at Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and then he broke through at Bay Hill.
“As long as you put yourself in contention more and more and keep knocking on the door, sooner or later you’re going to step through,” McIlroy said. “And then with that, experience will do great things for you going forward.”
Woods hasn’t been within five shots of the lead going into Sunday since Bay Hill. He never got going at the Masters or at Quail Hollow, and while he had a season-best 65 in the third round at The Players Championship, he still was 11 shots out of the lead. The idea this week is to get in range.
“The last few times that I’ve had a chance, I’ve felt very comfortable,” he said. “Hopefully I can just shoot the low round when I need it.”