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Roger Maltbie remembers 1976 inaugural Memorial win

While still a PGA TOUR player, I was finishing a practice round at the 1984 Hawaiian Open at Waialae Country Club when I saw Hale Irwin doing an interview with a local TV station. Hale was facing me, looking at the camera, so I stopped to listen. I positioned myself right behind the cameraman and folded my arms. Noticing, Hale stopped the interview and looked right at me.

“It’s funny how a golf ball can bounce, isn’t it, buddy?” I said with a smile.

A week earlier, at the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, now the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Jim Nelford was the leader in the clubhouse on Sunday. Hale needed to birdie the 72nd hole, No. 18 at Pebble Beach, to force a playoff with Nelford. From the tee, Hale hit a poor drive to the left, but as the ball landed, it hit a rock along the shoreline and bounced back onto the fairway. From there, Hale went on to make birdie, and then eventually beat Nelford on the second extra hole. Had his ball bounced the other direction, it would have been extremely difficult for Hale to make birdie, and the Associated Press agreed, writing about his shot, “It was one of the luckiest bounces of all time.”

I had to wait eight years to have my moment of fun with Hale during that interview in Honolulu, and after I said what I said about a golf ball and bounces, he smiled. He knew what I was up to, and both of our thoughts turned to the 1976 Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.

In that inaugural tournament held at Jack Nicklaus’ newly built golf course in Ohio, I was in my second year on TOUR. I won two tournaments in 1975, in back-to-back weeks, at the Quad Cities Open and the Pleasant Valley Classic. Hale also was a two-time winner that season, and he had five career wins—his biggest victory coming at the 1974 U.S. Open.

Muirfield Village was new to all of us, but I did have a sneak preview a year earlier. In my first major championship appearance, at the 1975 PGA Championship, my playing partner in the first two rounds was the Golden Bear. The Monday after the PGA, Jack hosted a children’s hospital pro-am at Muirfield Village, he graciously invited me to play and that was my first look at his creation. I knew something special was going to happen there, and I immediately liked the course.

I returned the following year for the first playing of the Memorial, looking forward to the tournament. I was a pretty good iron player, and I grew up on a golf course with greens that were very, very small. I felt like Muirfield Village was a quintessential second-shot golf course, with greens that were so fast that it was important to get the ball underneath the hole. That described the golf course I grew up experiencing, and I immediately felt comfortable there.

True to expectation, Muirfield was tough. In the first round, only seven players broke par, and I was one of them, shooting a 1-under 71—along with Jerry McGee, Hale and Jack. Don Bies opened with a 68 and was the leader. I shot a second consecutive 71 to enter the weekend alone in second, a stroke behind Hubert Green. Now, only four of us were under-par through 36 holes.

It was another steady round for me Saturday, a 2-under 70 that left me at 4-under and alone at the top, two strokes ahead of Bies and three clear of Rod Funseth.

I remember my final round really well. I had 14 pars and four bogeys. A birdie-free round like that usually isn’t going to get it done on Sunday on the PGA TOUR, yet I wasn’t alone. Everybody, it seemed, was struggling. From my scoreboard watching, it only looked like Hale was having a good day. Actually, he was having a terrific day, and I thought my goose was cooked. He took a two-shot lead over me going into the par-5 15th, but he made double bogey there. I saw the scoreboard reflecting his updated score, and I remember thinking, Wow, I’m still in it.

On the 72nd hole, I put my tee shot in the fairway, with the hole in the traditional back-left position. I hit a solid 4-iron approach, but I missed the birdie putt. Hale also made par, and we finished regulation tied.

Now, Jack had been nothing but great to me, but even I, as a second-year pro, could figure this one out. Do you want a renegade kid from California as your first tournament winner, or would you like a major champion with the pedigree of Irwin as your champion?

That, at least, is how I felt, and maybe for no good reason other than that was what I was thinking, entering the playoff.

A unique aspect of the tournament was prior to the tournament, Jack let it be known he did not want a sudden-death playoff. He requested—and got—an aggregate, three-hole playoff should it be needed. That playoff would start at No. 15. I remember thinking, Why are we starting where there are four holes remaining, and it’s a three-hole playoff?

I got to the 15th tee with my caddie Jeff Burrell, who passed away in 2008, and, let’s face it, I’m nervous. I walk up to Hale, and he gave me a very limp, disinterested handshake. Jeff saw that, and he said to me the most perfect thing at the time, loud enough for Hale to hear: “He thinks he’s gonna win.”

I started to laugh, but it got me thinking. You know, he’s right. What the heck? Let’s just go play and see what happens.

Well, we both birdied the 15th—my first birdie of the day. We each parred 16, the par-3, so we got to 17, the third extra hole. We both hit our drives onto the fairway. I was a little short of Hale’s ball, so I hit first. I take out a 4-iron, the same club I hit on 18 in regulation. Only this time I yank it left of the green, and it’s not good over there.

Then all of a sudden, I can see my ball is out in the middle of the green. My immediate thought was I hit somebody right in the middle of the forehead and got a “good” bounce. What actually happened was my ball hit a thin, metal stake—rebar, actually—that supported the gallery rope. I got a really fortunate bounce. Hale was clearly not pleased, and that shows up on the video footage you can still find on the internet. He was shaking his head in disbelief. At any rate, he hits a wonderful approach into the green and has something like 10 or 12 feet for birdie.

On the green, I miss my birdie putt and tap in for par. I walked toward Jeff, at the back of the green, and I began taking off my glove. Jeff looked and me and said, “What are you doing?” I whispered, “He ain’t Hale Irwin because he misses these putts to win.” It was not a hard putt, and, yes, I expected him to make it.

But a funny thing happened: Hale missed, so on to 18 we went. I guess Jack knew what he was doing after all, starting the playoff on 15. Now it’s sudden-death, and I played the hole almost identically to how I played it an hour earlier. I hit a perfect drive and a 4-iron to the same spot on the green.

Meanwhile, Hale was having trouble. He drove his ball into some trees, and he finally got onto the green in four. He would be putting for bogey. I knew a two-putt would win me the tournament, and it was a putt I had just missed my last time on the green. So, I limped the thing down there, knowing how it would break, and, wouldn’t you know, it fell in.

The tournament was over, and I was the first winner of the Memorial Tournament. Hale and I shook hands, and then I stayed on the green for the trophy ceremony while Hale headed to the media center for his post-tournament interview. When I arrived for my interview, Hale was still on the dais. As everybody knows, Hale was then and still is a hell of a competitor, and he was none too happy how things turned out. I slipped in and sat on the back row, waiting my turn. Suddenly, a volunteer marshal who had been working the 17th fairway, opened the door, saw me and walked toward me, holding a gallery stake, the same stake I hit on the third playoff hole.

“I thought you might want this as a keepsake,” he said. I whispered “thank you” to him and told him how thoughtful it was, how much I appreciated it because I really did. He didn’t have to do that.

Now there I am, sitting on the back row holding this stake. Hale, of course, spotted me, I sheepishly held up the stake so he could see and he said into the mic, “No thanks. I’ve already had the shaft once today.”

I’ve thought a lot about that shot over the years, a shot that ultimately won me the Memorial. It’s made me introspective about that particular shot and luck, in general. If I had been 10-over par and hit that stake, who would care, right? But when you get a bounce like that, when you need it most and it has that kind of impact, that’s luck.

And luck was definitely on my side that day.