DUBLIN, Ohio — William McGirt has plenty to celebrate this week as he prepares to defend his title at the Memorial Tournament in Ohio.
On Monday, the 37-year-old Fairmont native and his wife Sarah celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary.
On Tuesday, during a press conference at Muirfield Village Golf Club, McGirt relived memories of his maiden victory last June in Jack Nicklaus’ signature event.
“To come back here as his defending champion is honestly a dream come true,” said McGirt, who claimed his elusive victory in his 165th career start with a dramatic two-hole playoff win over Jon Curran.
“The biggest thing was confidence, knowing that I could get the job done out here now, especially against the best players in the world. If you look at the leaderboard on Sunday last year, I mean it was top-10 players in the world, it seemed like every one of them were up there.”
And McGirt bested them all, going bogey-free over his final 22 holes at Jack’s Place, getting up-and-down all seven times he missed a green over the final two rounds. His final par in regulation proved to be the most important, a two-putt from 65 feet that allowed him to join Curran in a playoff.
After a superb flop shot on the second playoff hole, with tournament host Nicklaus seated a few feet away, McGirt calmly addressed his 6-foot par putt on the 18th green, and as the ball tracked toward the hole, raised his arm for a celebratory fist pump. A handshake with Nicklaus followed, along with a photograph featuring McGirt holding the trophy with Sarah, plus their two children, Mac and Caroline, by his side.
“The up-and-down to win was crazy,” said McGirt, who will look this year to become the first player since Tiger Woods to successfully defend at Muirfield Village.
“It was just nice to get that done. Got me in a lot of really cool tournaments, obviously the Masters being the biggest one, but Kapalua, as well. It’s just been huge in many, many ways. So much of it you just can’t put into words.”
The victory served as a launching pad for McGirt, who proceeded to earn his first top-10 finish in a major at the PGA Championship last August in New Jersey and followed with a top-25 finish in his Masters debut this season.
“I played really well for a couple of months thereafter (the Memorial). … I had a chance (at the WGC-Bridgestone) in Akron and played well at the PGA,” he said.
“The biggest thing coming away from here (at Muirfield Village) was I felt like I could do it and play well pretty much every week on any style golf course. Finishing up the year last year, I wanted to win again and I felt like I gave myself a couple of opportunities and that was huge. To make the Tour Championship at the end of the year, that’s always been a goal. And to finally do that was a lot of fun and very rewarding.”
With three top-10 finishes this season, McGirt is hoping for a similar run down the stretch as he prepares for his second appearance in the U.S. Open, which begins in two weeks at Erin Hills.
But first he’ll navigate Nicklaus’ pride and joy, the 7,392-yard, par-72 track that puts an emphasis on accuracy over power. It’s a test that can be tamed, as McGirt showed last season with a score of 15 under. But it’s also a marathon, as McGirt pointed out Tuesday.
“It’s one of those places where you have to pace yourself. … It’s very similar to how Augusta (National) is,” McGirt said.
“I remember coming here the first time and (caddie) Brandon (Antus) telling me this golf course was perfect for me. I said, ‘Bud, it’s like 7,500 yards, how can it be perfect for me?’ and he said, ‘You have to trust me.’ We go around here and all the lines, the holes fit my eye, everything was just perfect. You really don’t have to fire at a lot of pins out here to get it close. You can use some of the slopes and kind of shape shots in.”
Grouped with Dustin Johnson — the top-ranked player in the world — and Phil Mickelson, McGirt will tee off from the 10th hole at 8:37 a.m. Thursday.
“I get giddy when I come here,” McGirt said. “It’s such a cool spot. And they take great care of us here.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.