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VOL. 132 | NO. 105 | Friday, May 26, 2017

As FESJC Turns 60, There's No Taking PGA Tour Event for Granted

By Don Wade

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This year marks the FedEx St. Jude Classic’s 60th year in Memphis. For decades the annual PGA Tour stop has signaled the start of summer and the arrival of stars ranging from Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus to Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson.

Phil Mickelson hits a drive off the No. 1 tee in last year’s FedEx St. Jude Classic golf tournament. Lefty, as he is known, is playing in his fifth straight FESJC event next month.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Local sports fans have been treated to the best players – sans Tiger Woods in his prime – the sport has had to offer.

Once, it was that way with the Memphis Open pro tennis tournament. It was a staple of the winter sports scene as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe occupied center court.

But the 41st tennis tournament at The Racquet Club was the last. Tournament owner GF Sports, based in New York, announced in April it was pulling out of Memphis. The fight to attract top talent to the tournament and to acquire a title sponsor and sell enough tickets was too much.

“The golf tournament’s never been in a healthier position,” said FESJC president and general chairman Jack Sammons. “We’re financially strong. We have the greatest partner in FedEx (in corporate sports sponsorship) and you can’t have two better brands than FedEx and St. Jude.

“That being said, it was just a decade ago when we were within a whisper of losing it when Stanford Financial left town in disgrace.”

Stanford lasted but two years as the title sponsor before a federal investigation into securities and investment fraud in the spring of 2009 resulted in the tournament dropping Stanford from the tournament’s name. FedEx has been title sponsor since 2011.

“I’d never downplay the importance of having star players in the FedEx St. Jude Classic,” said tournament director Darrell Smith. “But I think we realized about six years ago – and Phil Cannon (the late and long-time tournament director) would say the same if he were still here – that the tournament needed to be bigger than golf and more of a community celebration.”

That was the transition the tennis tournament had tried to make for years, getting past the glory days when those young American legends grabbed the headlines and packed the Racquet Club. For a time, American Andy Roddick stepped in and filled the void. When he left the game, so did the last of American star power. Rising appearance fees for players also hurt the local tennis tournament’s ability to compete.

While tennis tournament backers tried to make the event bigger than the tennis and more social, it lacked a title sponsor in recent years, a three-year presenting sponsor agreement with ServiceMaster ended, and ownership changed hands multiple times. FedEx, meanwhile, has been involved with the golf tournament at some level since the 1980s.

“Anytime Memphis loses anything – sports, business or the arts – that’s a disappointment for every Memphian,” Smith said. “I know they gave it a solid try. There was no lack of effort. With tennis, the state of the game, you scratch your head a little bit. With the PGA Tour, the best players in the world are playing in America and that’s not necessarily the case in tennis.”

This year’s FESJC runs from June 5-11 with the pros playing their four rounds June 8-11. The field includes last year’s champion, Daniel Berger; Mickelson, who is playing here a fifth straight year; Australia’s Adam Scott (No. 8 the world); and Americans Brooks Koepka (20) and Kevin Chappell (23), among a field of more than 150 players that includes more than 60 players with at least one tour victory to their credit.

Notable this year is a change in the Wednesday Pro-Am format. The FESJC, Smith says, will be the only stop on tour this year to have groups playing the front nine with one pro and the back nine with another.

“The format’s been well-received by players – they get a little more rest the day before the tournament – and we talked about it a lot in the off-season first, wanted to make sure it would be good for our customers,” said Smith. “We’re kind of a test market.”

Sammons, who typically buys a team for the event, likes the Pro-Am for a couple of reasons. First, playing with the pros, adding, “I can’t go out on a basketball court and shoot 3-pointers with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.”

Secondly, the new format is a perfect fit for his, well, short game.

“Fresh meat,” Sammons said of getting to play with different pros on the front nine and back nine. “I tell a lot of stories on the golf course. This will be easier because usually by 16 or 17 my routine is getting pretty stale.”

Of course, the serious golf starts on Thursday with tens of thousands of fans flocking to TPC Southwind to see the pros compete a week ahead of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin. There are more than 40 PGA Tour events, but that still leaves a lot of places looking longingly at Memphis and its 60-year tradition.

“In a town like Memphis, where you’re attempting to recruit and retain talent and major corporate headquarters, every amenity is important,” Sammons said. “There are a lot of great cities in America that would love to have a stop on the PGA Tour.”

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