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VOL. 132 | NO. 117 | Tuesday, June 13, 2017

For St. Jude and Golf Fans, FedEx St. Jude Classic is Thriving

By Don Wade

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Perspective can be too easy of a word. It can get thrown around casually, especially in big-time sports settings. But at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, “perspective” isn’t just a clichéd line for a moment in time.

Daniel Berger clinched his second FedEx St. Jude Classic win Sunday, June 11. The tournament, held at TPC Southwind, has generated more than $36 million for St. Jude in its 60-year history. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

Rather, it’s real and always in play. This was the tournament’s 60th year, that fact duly noted in a new logo with the words: “60 Years Y’all.” It was a natural twist of the traditional “Hush Y’all” signs that dot the course at TPC Southwind.

So no, there’s not much chance anyone will lose sight of the value of this tournament to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital or to the city at large. The yearly PGA stop has generated more than $36 million for the hospital. And it’s the longest-running major pro sports event in town.

It has been said over and over, but it is no less true: Everyone is somehow connected to the hospital, has a story about someone in their family, a friend, a work associate. The Monday before this year’s tournament started, various sports celebrities were here to play in the Danny Thomas Pro-Am. One of them was former big-league all-star pitcher Brad Penny. He had put in the winning bid at another event to come be part of FESJC Week.

“In 2009 when I was playing in Boston, I had a cousin who was 9 years old and he’s been a patient here for a while now,” Penny said. “He still comes for check-ups – he’s clear – but it was a brain cancer. From my family I hear the stories, so there’s no reason not to support this. People always talk about pressure we have (as athletes). It’s not pressure.”

To that point, Stewart Cink, 44, entered Sunday’s final round in a three-way tie for the lead. He won the British Open back in 2009, but hasn’t won on tour since. He finished the FESJC at -6, tied for 10th-place. And all things considered, it was more than fine. His wife Lisa, who is still undergoing treatment for breast cancer, was feeling well enough to be at the FESJC following her husband.

Asked about the “perspective” recent life events had brought to him, Cink said: “I’ll never get rid of that. That will be something I’ll always carry with me.”

The FedEx St. Jude Classic draws more than 1,800 volunteers annually, including those who carry the familiar “Hush Y’all” signs. “We have people that have been volunteering for 30, 40 years,” says tournament director Darrell Smith. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

 

There have been other opportunities for all to look at golf differently this week. Before arriving here, Phil Mickelson had announced he would be skipping the U.S. Open to attend his daughter’s high school graduation, where she will be giving a speech.

That’s why Ted Davis, 50, was standing three-deep in a crowd Sunday morning as Lefty practiced on the driving range before finishing at -7 and in ninth-place. Again, it wasn’t all about the leaderboard.

“Phil didn’t become one of my favorites until this year with his decision to go to his daughter’s high school graduation instead of playing a tournament he’s finished second in six times,” said Davis, who played basketball at Rhodes College and is a wealth adviser for Region’s Bank. “That was an amazing sacrifice. I’ve got two daughters myself. I hope someday he gets a chance to go win the U.S. Open.”

As Davis spoke, a purple flag with the gold initials “PC” flapped in the breeze. The flag honors longtime FESJC tournament director Phil Cannon, who died of cancer last October.

“A really nice touch,” Davis said.

This year’s tournament also resonates because it is the first after learning the Memphis Open tennis tournament will not have a 42nd year at The Racquet Club; the tournament owners are moving it to New York.

Less than a decade ago, Stanford Financial sponsored the golf tournament. When Stanford was taken down in a fraud investigation, the FESJC was briefly – but legitimately – in peril.

“Now our balance sheet’s stronger than ever” said FESJC president and general chairman Jack Sammons.

Rather than merely survive, the FESJC is again thriving. Each year, more than 1,800 volunteers show up to make the tournament work with the smoothness of a Lefty putt rolling into the cup. People use their vacation time to hold those “Hush Y’all” signs and in so many ways be the guardians of this event.

“We have people that have been volunteering for 30, 40 years,” said tournament director Darrell Smith, who on Sunday made sure to personally thank Mickelson for playing the FESJC a fifth straight year.

Over the four days the pros were competing for a total of $6.4 million in prize money (two-time winner Daniel Berger took home $1,152,000), and tens of thousands of fans turned out. One of the biggest galleries this weekend belonged to Ole Miss golfer Braden Thornberry, who displayed a fast no-nonsense style of play, was coming off a national championship, and hit enough good shots to finish in a tie for fourth-place.

“Heard my share of `Hotty Toddies,’” he said. “Probably close to a thousand this week.”

Justin Harris and his sons Gavin, 12, and Mason, 9, drove over from Jonesboro, Arkansas. They come every year. Gavin dreams of being on the PGA Tour himself one day. Mason fancies himself in the NBA but loves getting autographs even if the scribbles on his Callaway golf cap are illegible.

“I really don’t know who they are,” Mason said, giving them the once-over.

Not that it matters. They’re all pro golfers. And this is cool. The boys count Ben Crane as their favorite player, a truth Gavin had to whisper because Billy Horschel had just signed his cap and was still within earshot. Asked how soon he will start looking forward to next year’s tournament, Gavin said: “Right after this is over.”

Sammons once was part of the effort to bring the NFL here. That didn’t work out, of course, but never has he considered it wasted time. It formed groundwork that was useful years later when community leaders stepped up to help bring the Grizzlies here from Vancouver. The NBA has been a good fit.

And Sammons can’t imagine a year without the FESJC bringing all these elite pro golfers to town – this year’s field featured 12 players that have won a major – and shinning an international spotlight on St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Sammons’ perspective?

“I’d rather have St. Jude here than the Dallas Cowboys.”

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