Originally created 06/03/04

A new kind of buzz at Muirfield Village



DUBLIN, Ohio -- There's a buzz at the Memorial Tournament that cannot be ignored.

It has nothing to do with Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, the top two players in the world ranking who will be playing in the same group for the first time this year.

It isn't about tournament host Jack Nicklaus, winding down his incomparable career. Not even the U.S. Open looming two weeks away can generated this much attention.

This is a real buzz - a swarm of cicadas that has returned to Muirfield Village for the first time in 17 years, as big as Texas grasshoppers and almost loud enough to drown out the Ohio State marching band during opening ceremonies Wednesday.

"I thought we had some big bugs in Africa, but these things ..." Ernie Els said.

Kenny Perry was playing a pro-am round Tuesday when a cicada flew under his arm during his backswing and zoomed past his face.

"I kind of flinched and I hit it way left," he said. "They could actually play a role in this tournament."

Jay Haas is one of the few players in the field who were here in 1987 when the cicadas showed up. He was reminded of them during a practice round, when he looked across from the fifth tee and saw Singh on the third tee.

"He let go of the club because one hit him in the face on his down swing," Haas said.

These are called 17-year cicadas because that's how long they have been in the ground. They crawl out to mate and lay eggs in tree branches. That constant screeching sound is the mating call made by the males 24 hours a day. Along the tree-lined fairways of Muirfield Village, the noise sounds like a police sirens in the distance.

"We don't have bugs in Ireland," Padraig Harrington said. "It was interesting the very first day to hear the noise. We weren't quite sure what they were. I read about it in the paper, so I was kind of expecting it. I actually wanted to see my first one. Once I've seen a few, I've seen them all. That's enough."

The cicadas won't be all the rage once the tournament starts.

The Memorial, which Nicklaus founded in 1976, remains one of the best stops on the PGA Tour because of the course that Nicklaus is constantly tweaking, and a tournament he tries to run like his beloved Masters.

The only significant change this year is three additional bunkers down the right side of the 18th fairway to punish big hitters who try to cut the corner, and cutting down about 500 trees to allow more sunlight for the grass and more wind tunnels to create havoc on certain approach shots.

The field includes nine of the top 12 players - Phil Mickelson, Mike Weir and the injured Jim Furyk are missing. Perry is the defending champion, winning by two shots last year despite closing with three straight bogeys.

But all eyes - even those spooky orange eyes of the cicadas - figure to be on the Woods and Singh the first two rounds at Muirfield Village.

They will be joined by the ever-popular Joey Sindelar, who might want to change his name to Joey Switzerland. While the respect between Woods and Singh is mutual, their relationship is cool at best.

Singh all but predicted more than a year ago that Woods' dominance would not last forever, and he might be right. The 41-year-old Fijian has already won three times this year, and has closed the gap on No. 1 to a mere 1.89 points.

Woods remains the center of attention, not because of his brilliant play, but because everyone is curious - Woods included - where his tee shots might go. Despite spraying the ball off the tee his last two tournaments, Woods still managed to finish one shot out of a playoff at Quail Hollow and the Byron Nelson.

"I'm close with everything," Woods said. "It's not just my driver, it's my entire game. You've got to keep working on it and keep staying patient, and hopefully things will fall into place."

Later, however, he conceded that "you go through periods where you just don't play well."

Woods and Singh last played together in the first round of the Tour Championship in Houston. The more famous encounter was the last round of the American Express Championship, where Woods held off Singh to win by two shots, a victory that carried him to his fifth straight PGA Tour player of the year award.

The conversation was nothing like the 'round-the-clock noise from the cicadas. It went something like, "Titleist 2. You're away. Here's your card," over 18 holes.

"When Vijay and I play, we just play our games," Woods said. "We're trying to win a golf tournament. It's going to be an enjoyable but competitive environment, and we're going to out there and play."

It could be quite a show, especially if they wind up together on the back nine Sunday with the tournament on the line. Even the cicadas might shut up and watch.