And then there was golf’s newest superstar, Columbus native Jack Nicklaus. He brought glory to his hometown, winning his first major at age 22 and joining Arnold Palmer and Gary Player as the Big Three. The only trouble? Nobody in Central Ohio could watch him compete in person.
“Besides Ohio State football and a little bit of basketball, there really wasn’t a whole lot going on in Columbus, Ohio, at that time,” Nicklaus recalls.
He wanted to change that. He wanted to give back to the community by giving them the game he loved. He wanted to create one of golf’s most important annual tournaments, and he wanted to showcase everything he loved about Columbus.
“He’s a Buckeye through and through,” says Columbus mayor Andy Ginther. “His roots are deep and they all run through Central Ohio.”
The charitable component would also be vital to Nicklaus’ dream, and a health scare with his young daughter gave him a focused incentive. And of course, somebody had to design and build the course. Luckily, Jack was just now dipping his toes into golf course architecture and had now found a proper piece of land to develop in the little suburb of Dublin.
Nicklaus couldn’t ignore the confluence of all these events taking place. So he went to work in the mid-1960s to make it happen. To create Muirfield Village Golf Club and bring an annual PGA TOUR event to the area.
It’s no coincidence that the growth of Columbus has coincided with the annual staging of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, which pumps $35 million annually into the local economy. While other cities in the Rust Belt states have taken a sharp decline in population, Columbus is the fastest growing city in the region.
In 1960, it ranked 28th in U.S. population with 471,316 residents. Columbus is now the 15th biggest city in the U.S. with more than 850,106 residents.
“When you’re able to host events and invite the world into your living room to show off your great city, the best zoo in the country, the best science museum in the country, the best library system in the country,” says Ginther, “[that] gives us an ability to introduce people around the world to our great community.”
Muirfield Village has even taken the next step beyond its annual event, having hosted The Presidents Cup, the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup. No other course can match that distinction. The Presidents Cup, held here in 2013, boosted the local economy by $50 million.
Columbus is no longer just a college sports town. Columbus Crew SC, a charter member of Major League Soccer, began play in 1996. The Columbus Blue Jackets played their first National Hockey League game in October, 2000. Both clubs provide local fans the opportunity to root for professional teams at their highest domestic levels.
But it’s the Memorial Tournament that dominates the sports landscape each summer.
“The Memorial Tournament has such an impact on the Columbus region, from the economics to building our image internationally, and that whole quality-of-life piece for all the people that do live here and benefit from the tournament,” said Linda Logan, the executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission.
“In large part, it’s events like the Memorial Tournament that have put us on the map. When you think about having the greatest golfer in the world being from our own hometown and what he wants to do with the tournament and how it means so much to him to give back — we think about that image that has been created over the decades by hosting the greatest golfers here year in and year out.”