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VOL. 131 | NO. 101 | Friday, May 20, 2016

New FESJC Director Hoping for Clear Skies, Big-Name Leaders

By Don Wade

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Sometimes, the moments that determine your future are seemingly small. Only later can you put everything together and realize that’s when you really made your choice.

Fabian Gomez, 2015 FESJC champion, is among the returning players for this year’s tournament. The field also will include Phil Mickelson and former FESJC winner and No. 8 ranked Dustin Johnson. 

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

This is Darrell Smith’s first year as tournament director of the FedEx St. Jude Classic. Because he is only 33 years old, one could argue he got to this position quickly. But that’s not entirely true and does not take into account the fateful moment when he was 14 years old.

Smith, who would go on to play golf at Bartlett High School, had been angling for a job at Quail Ridge Golf Course. He was there on Thanksgiving morning when the man with the power to make that happen asked him point blank:

“Do you want a job?”

“Yeah,” young Darrell said.

“Clock in.”

So he did. And he called his mom and told her he wouldn’t be making it home for Thanksgiving dinner.

He has been working in golf ever since.

“I really don’t know anything different than golf,” said Smith, who succeeds longtime tourney director Phil Cannon, who resigned in the fall but will remain involved as a consultant; Cannon is still undergoing treatment for cancer.

It was Cannon, of course, who gave Smith a job as an intern at the tournament back in 2005 when he was finishing up his degree at the University of Tennessee. When Smith says he did a little bit of everything, he’s not kidding. Among his jobs: sorting and distributing the 1,800 volunteer uniforms, collecting the artwork for all the tournament’s publications and managing the supply warehouse.

All of it proved to be a good training ground. From 2006 to 2009, Smith was operations director for the FESJC, then worked a couple of years as director of operations for the PGA’s Byron Nelson tournament in Irving, Texas.

Smith returned to the FESJC as tournament manager in 2011 and worked closely with sponsors as FedEx returned to the role of title sponsor.

This year’s field is headed by Phil Mickelson, who is making his fourth straight appearance in Memphis; 2012 champion Dustin Johnson; Brooks Koepka; and last year’s champion, Fabian Gomez. In all, the field currently has 19 players who have scored at least one tournament victory in the past two seasons.

Through May 18, Dustin Johnson was ranked eighth in the Official World Golf Rankings, Mickelson was 17th and Koepka 19th.

The 2016 U.S. Open is in Oakmont, Penn., from June 16-19 and, as usual, the FESJC at TPC Southwind is played the previous weekend – June 9-12. Smith is hopeful that they can draw more players because the U.S. Open is closer than it was last year when it was played at Chambers Bay in Washington.

“It could be an improved field from last year,” Smith said. “On the flip side, it’s a crazy year in professional golf because the Olympics are going to be pretty impactful.”

The Olympic golf dates are Aug. 11-14. So there are a lot of major events on the schedule, with The Open Championship at St. Andrews July 14-17, and the PGA Championship two weeks later in New Jersey.

Smith has his dream scenario for the weekend, and it starts with warmer weather beginning now. On a recent morning that was both unseasonably cool and gray, head golf course superintendent Jim Thomas was expressing hope that the “150 rule” would soon come into play.

“Add up the day’s high temperature and low and you get 150,” Thomas said, noting that the course grass could use some more growing. “Right now, you’re not having to mow your yard very often. I need you to have to mow.”

As for tournament weekend, Smith first hopes for dry conditions. But when he allows himself to get greedy, he sees Mickelson and Johnson paired together and atop the leaderboard come Sunday.

That said, all his prior experience also has taught him that this is more than a golf tournament, more than shot-making and the “oohs” and “ahs” inspired by long, straight drives and delicate chips out of the bunker rolling onto the green and near the hole.

“I don’t think we’re in the golf business,” Smith said. “We’re in the community business. Golf is the focus and what happens inside the ropes is what people will remember, but we want to be the largest outdoor festival that we can be.”

And that can happen without him even missing Thanksgiving dinner.

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