The biggest name at this weekend’s FedEx St. Jude Classic signed autographs as he came off the ninth green at TPC Southwind after his pro-am round and then stopped to chat with reporters.
Phil Mickelson – the man more commonly known as, simply, “Lefty” – was wearing his trademark black cap and shirt, looking tan and fit, and sounding eager for his scheduled 7:27 a.m. starting time Thursday, June 6, on the 10th tee.
“It’s a great tournament,” Mickelson said of the FESJC, which he has not played in four years. “What stuck in my mind was how much I liked the golf course. It was a fun, fair test.”
Professional golfer Greg Owen poses with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patient Brennan. The FedEx St. Jude Classic golf tournament began Thursday, June 6, and runs through Sunday, June 9.
(St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital)
For Mickelson and several others it is a great practice test – if a $5.7 million tournament can be called that – in preparation for next week’s U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.
“I like playing the week before (a major),” Mickelson said. “It’s important that I’m sharp and ready to play.”
Mickelson came into the tournament ranked seventh in the FedExCup standings and with one PGA Tour victory this season and three Top 10 finishes. His birdie average of 4.63 per round leads the tour and he has converted 23.71 percent of his putts from 15 to 25 feet, second on tour to Stephen Ames at 27.78.
“The greens are small; it’s difficult to get the ball stopped,” Mickelson said. “And there are a lot of cool little shots around the green. So the precision of the iron shot into the green as well as the importance of hitting fairways here is a similar style of golf that will happen at Merion next week.”
Another Phil, as in Cannon, the long-time FESJC tournament director, would like nothing better than to see Mickelson continue his solid play all the way through Sunday, the day ending with Mickelson hoisting the winner’s trophy. Cannon says they have about a nine-month selling season for the tournament that excludes the 30 days after it and the 30 days before the next one, plus December.
Although the tourney could use any number of player images in promoting the next year’s event, it’s best to be careful so promotion is not tied to a player who either by choice or because of injury does not play. But there is always momentum to be had from having a big-name winner. And the biggest name in this year’s field is Mickelson.
“That is like five-star PR right there,” Cannon said between loud, static-filled squawks on the walkie-talkie that is never far from his side during tournament week. “It’s extremely valuable to us to have a player with a great name serve as our champion all year.”
Which isn’t to suggest a Mickelson victory is the only winning scenario. Cannon said any kind of “thrilling finish” on Sunday would keep television viewers locked in and ensure a large gallery on the 18th green.
“If it’s a compelling story,” Cannon added, “sometimes the Golf Channel will feature it at the end of the year as part of a wrap-up.”
For years, much attention was paid to the golf icon who never came and still hasn’t come: Tiger Woods. He is again back atop the world rankings and FedExCup standings and, after a one-year absence, again No. 1 on Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s highest-paid athletes with $78.1 million over the last year in prize money, endorsements and other sources of income.
But, Cannon said, “this event is bigger than any one player.”
That understood, another positive scenario would be for the FESJC winner to then go out and win the U.S. Open next week.
“We want our champions to have a string of victories,” Cannon said, “and be Top 10 at the end of the year.”
Several players might be able to pull off that trick – from 2012 FESJC champion Dustin Johnson (19th in the FedEx Cup race) to Boo Weekley (sixth) to Brandt Snedeker (third), who is from Nashville and considers this a “home tournament” and the ideal prep for the U.S. Open.
“This is a great tune-up for next week because this is a golf course that par is a good score,” Snedeker said. “So it gets you in the mind-set of appreciating making pars when you have to.”
Said Weekley: “This golf course sets up real good for me. I like the Bermudagrass on the greens. It’s one of those courses I feel like I can win on, too. It’s just I haven’t done it.”
Of course, it’s also uncommon for a player to win the week before a major and then win the major. There’s even a theory that winning the week before a major reduces the chances of winning the major. Johnson doesn’t see it that way.
“I’ll take a win the week before every major the rest of my life,” he said. “I’ll be smiling.”