Updated: May 28, 2014, 10:54 AM ET

Can big names find game at Memorial?

By Bob Harig | ESPN.com


Front nine
DUBLIN, Ohio -- An ordinary, sometimes mundane golf season suddenly on Sunday got the spark it so desperately needed. Adam Scott, current No. 1 in the world, won for the first time this year. So did former No. 1 Rory McIlroy.

Their victories came on the same day roughly six months after they dueled at the Australian Open, McIlroy denying Scott the Aussie Slam while getting his own career on track, but Scott squarely in position to make a run at No. 1.

Richard Heathcote/Getty ImagesEight of the top 12 ranked players in the world -- including Phil Mickelson -- will be playing this week at the Memorial Tournament, hosted by Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield Village Golf Club.

That happened last week, and then Scott followed up with a victory at the Colonial, his first on the PGA Tour since capturing the Barclays in August and one that will keep him atop the rankings for at least another week.

Scott did so despite an opening nine that seemed to suggest he would be on his way to missing the cut.

"It's another learning experience on how golf is, to get off to such a poor start on Thursday and kind of claw my away back into [the] tournament," said Scott, who bogeyed four of his first nine holes. "It's so satisfying in so many ways to get it done."

Like Scott, McIlroy had seen some success without winning and had grown frustrated. And it seemed to be the story of the year. Upstarts, no-names, first-timers ... aside from Bubba Watson's victory at the Masters (which followed a win at Riviera), the storylines were more about guys trying to make a name for themselves as opposed to those who already had.

McIlroy had seven top-10s in 11 official starts since his last victory and gave himself excellent chances to win in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and at the Honda Classic. Strong weekends put him in the top 10 at the Wells Fargo Championship and Players Championship, the latter a tournament where he has traditionally struggled.

But McIlroy wasn't pleased with "backdoor top-10s," as he said. And the BMW PGA Championship last week at Wentworth didn't seem the place to do it. McIlroy had missed the cut in each of the past two years there, and then announced on the eve of the tournament that he had broken off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.

Another poor performance would have been easily dismissed. Instead, McIlroy rallied from 7 strokes back on Sunday to win his first professional title on European soil.

"It does my confidence a world of good," McIlroy said. "I know that I'm playing well, but being able to get the job done under pressure and when I need to ... I think that's the most pleasing thing about [the] week.

"I think it's the start of something ... There's still three majors to play this year, a lot of golf left, a lot of big tournaments to try and win. So even though we're nearly halfway through the season, I feel like mine's just beginning."

Golf, for whatever reason, is a game that celebrates its superstars far more than its underdogs.

That's why this season seemed to inch along. The No. 1 draw, Tiger Woods, has been out with injury. Phil Mickelson has been surprisingly off. None of last year's major champions had won until Scott's victory Sunday. Meanwhile, eight players were ranked outside the top 100 at the time of their wins.

It was only one week, but the Memorial Tournament that starts Thursday seems a perfect place to continue the trend. Eight of the top 12 players in the world are assembled with the U.S. Open just around the corner.

And it doesn't hurt that Scott and McIlroy, along with Jason Day, will be grouped together for the first two rounds at Muirfield Village.

At the turn
The United States Golf Association announced this week that 25 players, including Miguel Angel Jimenez, had qualified for the U.S. Open based on being among the top 60 in the world as of Sunday. That brings the number of fully exempt players to 75.

That number could change June 9, when any new players in the top 60 as of that date also can qualify.

Six players gained entry to the Open through a sectional qualifier in Japan on Monday, as did 14 at another qualifier in England, which brings the number in the field to 95.

That means approximately 60 spots will be available at the 10 sectional qualifiers that will be played around the country June 2.

Back nine
It has been a rather quiet year to date for Jason Dufner, the reigning PGA Championship winner. He missed the cut at the Masters and tied for 48th at the Players Championship before getting into contention at the Colonial -- a tournament he probably should have won were it not for some short putting woes.

He did go 69-66 over the weekend to post his best finish since winning the PGA, losing to Adam Scott in a sudden-death playoff. But he had three lip-outs on the back nine as well as a missed 3-footer for par at the 11th. It wasn't until the final hole where he drained a 25-footer to get to 9 under par, a score later matched by Scott.

"I was pretty happy with how I played," Dufner said. "I had some really good putts, I thought, that had a real good chance to go in. Usually I had some sloppy putts out there that didn't look like they'd go in. I'm glad I hung in there and finally got one to fall inside on 18."

Dufner appeared poised to win on the second extra hole when he stuck his approach to five feet, but Scott made a longer birdie putt to extend it to a third hole.

Still, in defeat, Dufner might have offered up the best quote of the year.

"He's a great player," Dufner said of Scott. "Obviously No. 1 in the world. It's tough to concentrate, he's so good looking, too."

Bob Harig | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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