It was built for stroke-play tournaments, and nearly four decades after opening it’s ideal for match play, too.
Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, is the House that Jack Built near his hometown of Columbus. Back in 1966, when he first walked this ground 20 miles northwest of downtown, it was farm country with many more horses and cows than people. Even when Muirfield Village opened in 1976 as home to the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament, spectators heading up there encountered no traffic, no lights and no real-estate development. That’s all changed now, with Muirfield Village the centerpiece for expansive, upscale real estate. Though so skillfully has Nicklaus kept the homes out of view that you’d never know they line these fairways.
The routing, which Nicklaus did with a Salvador Dali-esque, non-golfing landscape architect named Desmond Muirhead (1923-2002), is ingenious. For all the rolling terrain of the land, you never have an obscured view of a landing area and you barely ever play an uphill shot – until the 18th approach. The trick they did was simply to route the holes so that the uphill climbs come between holes, as you go from green to next tee. So you always see your landing zone on tee shots and approaches, and crowds on a course that can easily handle 40,000 spectators also have ideal vistas.
It all sets up for what should be a very engaging Presidents Cup. Much of the credit goes to veteran superintendent Paul B. Latshaw. Imagine the pressure of perennial PGA Tour scrutiny – and with Jack Nicklaus functioning as your green chairman. The conditioning is usually spotless, literally. It’s likely there won’t be a single white line anywhere denoting ground under repair. Par for the course is a very balanced 36-36—72 of returning nines, with yardage set at 7,388. That clocks in at a 76.3 rating / 149 slope. Of course this week slope doesn’t matter, because nobody’s getting any shots in the matches.
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No. 1: Par 4, 470 yards
Your basic opening Nicklaus hole from the 1970s and 80s, a distinct fade drive to a generous fairway, and then a short iron (when it opened it was a middle- to long-iron) in to a well-bunkered green. The putting surfaces here are not expansive – on average 5,000 square feet. They demand precision, reward well-struck shots played from the fairway and don’t allow you to work the ball in from the side of the green surrounds. The bentgrass greens are groomed to within about one-tenth of an inch of their life, with Stimpmeter speeds around 13. It’s a matter of starting the ball on line and letting it roll out. The faster these greens are, the better the American team will do.
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No. 2: Par 4, 455 yards
The first test: a very tight feeling tee shot, thanks to a straight, unbunkered fairway with nothing visually to shape a shot with and a very large caveat running the length of the right side: Do not hit it in the creek. Three-woods off the tee will predominate here, especially Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning with alternate shot/foursomes, where the rule of thumb is simply to avoid heroics and put your teammate in good shape for the next shot.
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No. 3: Par 4, 401 yards
There’s nothing duller in match play than a forced lay-up hole with no viable options. That’s the case here on this par 4 with a creek that runs the left side of the fairway and expands into a pond exactly at what would be the far point of the drive zone to form a forced-carry hazard. There’s no advantage at all in hitting driver and it’s safe to say nobody will all week; this is strictly a lay-up off the tee because the narrow, elongated green will not hold an approach shot hit without spin. The important point is to approach from the fairway. Even with the rough cut back a little to about 3 inches – a bit less than during The Memorial Tournament – there’s little ability to control this approach from the rough and no advantage to hitting it longer than 260-270 yards off the tee – short of two fairway bunkers right and that water left. It’s also unlikely that PGA Tour officials will move the tees up for better-ball play or Sunday’s singles matches. That’s because there’s no fairway beyond the water short of the green and no safe place to miss the green that would warrant risking driver off the tee.
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No. 4: Par 3, 200 yards
A strong par-3, with a green that falls away slightly from the line of play, and one that encourages a draw off the tee (except from Phil Mickelson).
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No. 5: Par 5, 527 yards
A severe dogleg right, one that demands a very precise high fade that gets around the tree-lined corner without running through into the far rough. A creek bisects the hole, creating a fairway-bailout to the left on the second shot that only seems to come into play for players who have to chip out from rough. Otherwise, this hole can be reached in two by all the players in the field, though it really demands two well-placed shots traveling left-to-right, the second one (into the green) ideally played very high and coming down soft. With water coming up tight to the front left of the green, it’s not a putting surface that plays well for a draw shot, since the elevated putting surface nudges everything left – sometimes into water, or, if hit strong, over the green to a falloff at the rear. This will be an exciting hole in Sunday’s singles matches. During the better ball, it would be smart if any team suffering doubts about their position plays its first approach safely short and right, leaving the second player on the team to go for broke.
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No. 6: Par 4, 447 yards
This strategy on this hole is set up by a large greenside bunker, which helps set up a divided putting green that falls away on each side from a central spine. The ideal drive will be on the side of the hole where the hole is cut, whether left or right, though in any case, the landing area off the tee is well bunkered on both sides, effectively narrowing down a 30-yard-wide fairway.
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No. 7: Par 5, 563 yards
An elegant long hole that unfolds right-to-left on the tee shot, then rolls back the other way on the second. It’s also a case of an interrupted hole, with the fairway ending 40 yards short and giving way to a heavily grassed swale. The only way to get to the green is through the air, whether on the second shot or the third. A large, very deep bunker protects the entrance to the green; it’s a common landing area for second shots and not a bad place from which to play. With the green tipped from right to left and one of the shallower ones on the course, it’s also hard to hold with a long shot unless the ball comes in very high and soft.
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No. 8: Par 3, 185 yards
Downhill, to a green popped up slightly above its surrounds, most of which is sand. At 43 yards deep and with two distinct tiers, the green can play anywhere from a 9-iron to a 6-iron on a calm day.
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No. 9: Par 4, 412 yards
It’s fascinating to see a golf course like this that presents a premium on driving the ball well, yet also offers five holes without a fairway bunker. That’s because the shaping here, to a slightly crowned landing area, makes players all too aware of the impending tree canopies on both side – to the point where on this slight dogleg right it’s possible to get blocked out on the near side of the fairway, or at least to have to hit a heckuva cut shot to reach the green. As for spectator-friendly golf, the putting surface here occupies the stage of a vast viewing platform that makes for quite a scene. It can be especially dramatic for shots coming up just a tad short that find the pond fronting this green – a hazard which induces players to overplay their approaches and wind up long, with a difficult recovery back to the green.
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No. 10: Par 4, 471 yards
Left-to-right twice here, on the tee shot from an elevated platform fronting the clubhouse grounds and then again to a green that’s well bunkered short right and long left. This is one of the very few steadily uphill holes on the course, one that readily divides the field into those who can carry it 285 yards off the tee (and thus past the little upslope crown in the fairway), leaving themselves a short iron in; and those who cannot carry it that far and find themselves hitting a long iron in.
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No. 11: Par 5, 567 yards
This is wonderfully complex hole, a double-dogleg (left, then right) that engages a creek crossing such that the water is in play on the tee shot, second shot and approach in. The green is very shallow, set diagonally a perched above that creek and one very busy front central bunker. Let’s just say that the only way to get here in two is hit a long draw of the tee and a very high, cut second shot in. It’s the kind of hole that breeds a lot of overly cautious play short of the green leaving a wedge in. That’s not a bad option, especially in alternate shot and singles matches.
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No. 12: Par 3, 184 yards
Nicklaus named the course in honor of the Scottish layout where he won his first Open Championship (in 1966), but it’s evident throughout, especially on this par-3, that he was actually more inspired by the strategy and land plan of Augusta National. This downhill par 3 sets up as a version of the famed short 12th hole where they play the Masters, except there’s more going on vertically here due to the more intense topography. That said, the green is angled the same way, and the genius of the hole is that if you hit it perfectly equal to mid-green and pull it you’re long left and in sand; and if you hit it equal to dead center but push it you’re in water. The trick here is judging the wind, no easy matter when the tee shot plays out of tree-lined chute to a massive amphitheater, where evidence of the wind above the tree line might not manifest itself in any movement on the ground. Restraint here is a virtue, especially when the hole is cut back right near the edge of doom. And risky play here can extract severe punishment. A player on Sunday coming in three-down who wants to play aggressively (i.e., desperately) is more likely to walk away four down rather than two.
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No. 13: Par 4, 455 yards
The calm before the storm. This is the simplest hole on the course, your basic dogleg left around a fairway bunker 285 yards out on the left (also the bunker that bears the scars of heavy-handed shaping). The second shot is downhill to a green that absolutely screams for a high draw and that is the site of probably more close approach shots than any other hole on the golf course.
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No. 14: Par 4, 363 yards
When this hole debuted, it single-handedly revived the art of the short par 4. It offers a split fairway-landing area and the temptation of a carry of 280 yards past a creek to a fairway opening shot of the green. That will prove a tempting target for long hitters in the better ball matches Friday and again Saturday afternoon. For long hitters in Sunday’s singles matches it might also prove seductive, though the risks are considerable, thanks to a thin-waisted green that cants sharply from its well-bunkered left down to a looming creek sheer on the right side. If, as is likely, the tees are moved up to bring the front of the green within range of 325 yards off the tee during four-ball and singles matches, expect some fireworks here – as well as some water works (which is why the hole tends to play over par).
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No. 15: Par 5, 529 yards
Reachable, but maddening. At 529 yards, the par-5 15th is always the easiest hole at Muirfield Village. But the hole still carries considerable risk for a player trying to force a good score on another one of the five unbunkered fairways – but this is the tightest, most tree-lined fairway. The ideal landing area off the tee falls away on both sides into woods. It’s common to see players lay up with a second short in front of a creek that crosses the fairway100-yards short of the green. By contrast, the bold, long approach play is a high cut, from 220-250 yards out, to an elevated green tipped away from the line of play. It’s a hole that demonstrates Nicklaus’ respect for the “par 4 and 1/2” championed by Augusta National. And it’s the kind of hole that will make Muirfield Village an ideal setting for match play.
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No. 16: Par 3, 201 yards
It’s an understatement to call Muirfield Village a work in progress, Nicklaus keeps tinkering to improve things, though in the vase of his latest major renovation, at this par 3, he ended up with a hole that looks and feels way too much like the 16th at Augusta National. It’s also the hole where Tiger Woods pulled off a miraculous recovery from greenside rough to make birdie in the final round of his win here in 2012. The key here is simply do not hit it left. The green plays well for a draw, and smart players use the slope.
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No. 17: Par 4, 478 yards
The landing area off the tee here is uncommonly large, but so is the expanse of surrounding sand from four bunkers that squeeze a drive that wanders. Small wonder that many players give up distance off the tee for control, even when that leaves a tough shot to an elevated green that’s deeply bunkered front and back. This is one of those holes that make you realize – if you needed reminding – of how good these guys are.
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No. 18: Par 4, 480 yards
Too bad so few matches tend to get to the 18th hole. The one big change at Muirfield Village from normal tournament play for The Presidents Cup will be use of a just-completed back tee on this home hole. A new way-back launch pad stretches the hole to 480 yards and will make it more likely that players will need a driver to get to a proper position in the fairway. In the past, they’ve steered safely left of a massive gaggle of bunkers down the entire right side, but in so doing their lay-up has kept them short of a creek that elbows in from the left. Now, with driver in hand, players will have to worry about staying short of the creek. If they lay back, they’re asking for a second shot of 200-plus yards uphill to a very tightly contoured green. Odds are that at least one-third of those playing the 18th hole will be down by a hole and needing a win. That means they’ll be playing aggressively, with a driver. That should make this hole exciting. And it comes down to the final day, it’ll also make that tee shot nerve-wracking.