Three on the tee for Memorial

May, 31, 2011

With the all the negative news in Columbus, Ohio, this week, sports fans in the area (especially those who cheer for the scarlet and gray) should be elated to have a diversion on the way. The state's most treasured athletic figure -- the great Jack Nicklaus -- hosts one of the best events on the PGA Tour this week.

Trivia question

Jack Nicklaus' last PGA Tour victory came at the 1986 Masters Tournament. What was his second-to-last win? (Answer below.)

The Memorial will feature an excellent field -- including new world No. 1 Luke Donald, six of the world's top 10, and reigning Masters winner Charl Schwartzel making just his second stateside start since winning the Green Jacket.

Now is no time to dwell on the negative, Ohio. Sure, your former native son has led his new team to the NBA Finals. And all right, maybe your beloved Buckeyes have been eviscerated by scandal this week. You've still got Jack -- and based on the recent timeline of events in the career of Tiger Woods, Mr. Nicklaus looks like he'll be hanging on to that major championships record a little while longer.

Three on the tee is a look at a trio of intriguing players to keep an eye on. The LeBron-free "big three," if you will. With no further ado, the starter calls to the tee:

Phil Mickelson: It took Lefty until his seventh start at the Memorial before he finally cracked the top 10. Now, he's finished there three of the past four times he's played the tournament. There's something to be said for experience being a prerequisite at Jack's event as no rookie has ever won the event. The average career start at the Memorial for the past nine winners has been 9.4. Defending champion Justin Rose is basically the aberration to that -- and he had made five previous starts at the event before winning last year.

There's a lot to like about the top-ranked American player in the world entering this week. He's still hitting it a mile -- 16th on tour in driving distance. He's tied for third in birdie average, and 14 of his past 16 rounds on tour have been par or better dating back to his win in Houston. He's never won here before, but 2011 might be the year for Mickelson.

Matt Kuchar: In this world, count on three things: death, taxes and Kuchar finishing in the top 10. Kuchar is tied for the tour lead in such finishes this season with seven, a year removed from leading the tour in them with 11. Kuchar has three straight top-10 finishes in this event, and each of his past seven rounds here have been under par.

Kuchar trails Steve Stricker by .04 shots for the lead in actual scoring average on tour this year, though he has played 22 more rounds than Stricker.

Nick Watney: Not far behind Kuchar in the top-10 finishes category over the past two years is Watney, who has seven in 2011 as well, and 15 since the beginning of 2010. Watney is coming off a pair of top-10 finishes in a row, and seems to have played the best in the deeper fields this year. For example: T-4 at the Players Championship, T-9 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, and a win at Doral.

Is taking Watney a bit of a flier this week though? Based on his experience at the Memorial, you might say so. Watney missed the cut here last year, and has never finished higher than T-14 in the event.

Still, it's tough to pick against someone who has putted so well this year. Watney is seventh in total putting and in the top-20 on tour in strokes gained -- putting and putting average.

Across the pond last week, we were treated to a playoff between Lee Westwood and Luke Donald -- with the winner being awarded not just one of the European Tour's most prestigious trophies (at the BMW PGA Championship), but the title of world's No. 1 player.

When Donald won on the first sudden-death hole, he became the third player to hold the No. 1 spot in 2011. We're not even to the U.S. Open yet, and that's already one shy of the record for the most different names atop the OWGR in a calendar year. That happened in 1997, when four men were on top at different points in the year: Greg Norman, Tom Lehman, Ernie Els, and Tiger Woods.

Donald became the first golfer since 2005 to win a tournament that automatically assured he would become the No. 1 player in the world. That was Woods, who won the 2005 Masters to assure the top ranking.

You might be saying, what about Westwood's win at the Indonesian Masters this year? Well, Luke Donald had a chance to become No. 1 with a win later that day at The Heritage. A technicality, yes, but when it comes to walk off to No. 1, we at Numbers Game have made that distinction.

Fans of the PGA Tour are getting spoiled in 2011.

After last weekend's playoff at the windy HP Byron Nelson Championship, won by Keegan Bradley, the tour has had five playoffs in the plast six weeks. In seven straight weeks, that week's PGA Tour event has been decided by either a playoff or by a single stroke. That's the longest such streak on tour since a seven-event stretch in early 2009.

Trivia answer

Question: Jack Nicklaus' last PGA Tour victory came at the 1986 Masters Tournament. What was his second-to-last win?

Answer: The 1984 Memorial Tournament.

And before that came the Masters Tournament, which was one of the most exciting Sundays at a major championship in recent memory.

If we see another playoff this week at the Memorial, though, it will snap a lengthy streak for the event. The Memorial currently holds the distinction of the longest playoff drought on the PGA Tour. The last playoff at the event came in 1992, when David Edwards defeated Rick Fehr.

We've seen 10 playoffs on tour in 2011 in all. The record is 16, which happened in both 1988 and 1991.

Numbers Game is a weekly stat-centric look at the PGA Tour.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." Send comments and suggestions to



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