Cannon Works for Golf Tournament's Success

By Don Wade

The putter and a few white golf balls sit next to a wall in Phil Cannon’s office at TPC Southwind. It seems logical, the long-time director of the FedEx St. Jude Classic having golf equipment within easy reach.

You might assume that on days like this, when the tournament draws near and Cannon and his staff are down to, as he likes to say, “The last 10,000 details,” the itch to get out and play might be insatiable given that there’s no time.

But the truth is Cannon, 61, isn’t a golfer. Never has been. He started volunteering at the local PGA Tour stop, now in its 57th year, when he was 14 years old, a student at White Station High School, and his family lived on Brookhaven Circle.

Phil Cannon, left, meets with PGA official Robby Ware. Cannon is preparing for the 57th annual FedEx St. Jude Classic, a tournament Cannon has been director of since 2000 and involved in since his youth.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

He recalls the PGA Tour in Memphis as “this big circus coming to town in our neighborhood.” Young Phil Cannon wanted to be a part of it and so he pedaled over to Colonial Country Club, chained his bicycle to a tree, and went to work.

“I was a scorer,” Cannon said of his first year on the job, which would turn into more than 40 years, and his being a full-time staff member since 1990, the tournament’s director since 2000. “I walked with a group and reported in on a little telephone headset. You had to go up under a tree and find the blue box and plug it in. And you were on a party line and you’d say, `Hey, I’m with Group 14 on the 10th hole.’”

He tells this story matter-of-factly. Cannon would prefer all the coverage go to the tournament itself – to the legions of volunteers that will make this year’s tournament happen, to the kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who will benefit and, of course, to the golfers, the stars of the sport such as Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler that people happily will pay to see drive, chip and putt just a few feet inside the ropes.

Cannon especially doesn’t want focus falling on his April 17 cancer diagnosis, pointing out that he has missed just two days of work since then. He’s had two rounds of chemotherapy and his only concession will be to ride around in a golf cart instead of walking everywhere.

“I’m the healthiest sick guy in town,” he said. “I still don’t believe I’ve got cancer.”

He gets excited explaining that this year’s tournament, which begins with the first of two Pro-Ams on Monday, June 2, and runs through Sunday, June 8, is perhaps the deepest field in 20 years. The following week is the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in North Carolina and the timing and proximity have worked in Memphis’ favor.

“Every (FESJC) winner that’s still on the PGA Tour back to 2003 is in the field,” Cannon said, ticking off names that included David Toms, Justin Leonard, Lee Westwood and last year’s champ, Harris English.

As motorists drive down Germantown Parkway and see the billboard with Mickelson and the tagline, “Come get your Phil,” it probably seems like the annual golf tournament just sort of happens organically.

But the challenges are large and unique. First, the tourney has a 12-month business cycle – not monthly or quarterly cycles. When there’s snow on the ground in January, golf isn’t exactly top of mind with sponsors. It’s about like trying to market to hibernating bears.

Beyond that, six months out Cannon has no idea what kind of field he will have. Players can enter as late as 5 p.m. six days before the first round.

“Can you imagine Pat Halloran (Orpheum president and CEO) not knowing what play is going to go on stage on a Monday the Thursday or Friday before?” Cannon asks with a shake of his head. “That’s insane.”

Five years ago, all these facts and a staggered economy conspired to put the city’s pro golf tournament on the brink of elimination when title sponsor Stanford Financial crashed.

“We were literally within days of the PGA Tour pulling the plug,” Cannon said.

This year, Cannon says sales are up 20 percent, both Pro-Ams are sold out, exhibit space is sold out, and so is the seating on the 17th and 18th holes. The group and corporate hospitality venue is full as well.

“Although we don’t discuss financial numbers in public, I can tell you we’re in much better financial shape now than we were five years ago,” he said.

The boy who once chained his bicycle to a tree at old Colonial Country Club and for years has been the tournament’s chief caretaker has had much to do with that.

As Cannon finishes chatting with a visitor in his office, he moves those white golf balls around with a putter. It’s less him playing at the game than it is nervous energy coming out – a metaphorical way of directing those 10,000 last details here on the carpet of his office.

“I don’t play golf,” Cannon said. “But I’d submit to you a music producer doesn’t sing or play guitar, either.”

He just makes sure the show goes on. No matter what.