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VOL. 133 | NO. 75 | Friday, April 13, 2018

Memphis Site of One of Golf’s Greatest Events

Pete Wickham, Special to The Daily News

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The hugs, the handshakes, the slaps on the back, the big smiles and loud, lengthy applause. All things normally saved in the golf world for that moment when a 75-foot eagle putt settles in the bottom of the hole.

In a sense, that’s exactly what happened Thursday, April 12, when the PGA and FedEx Corp. announced that the venerable Memphis tour stop, the FedEx St. Jude Classic, will get a major upgrade in August 2019, when it becomes the FedEx St. Jude Invitational, one of four stops on the elite World Golf Championships circuit.

The World Golf Championships, founded in 1999, is a collaborative effort with major PGA tours around the world (United States, Europe, South Africa, Australasia and Japan). This year it hosts stroke play tournaments in Mexico in March (Phil Mickelson won), Akron, Ohio in August and China in October, along with a March match play championship in Austin, Texas, that Bubba Watson won.

The events are open to the Top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, members of the most recent Ryder and President’s Cup teams, as well as winners of select major events on the international tours.

The question was asked by one media member “for golfers and non-golfers alike. Does this mean Tiger Woods will be coming to Memphis (at last)?”

WORLD GOLF CHAMPIONSHIPS/

FEDEX-ST. JUDE INVITATIONAL

WHEN: August 2019 (exact date TBA)

WHERE: TPC Southwind

PURSE: Approximately $10 million

FIELD: Approximately 75 players, limited to players ranked in the top 50 on the Official World Golf Ranking, playing members of the last named Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup teams, and tournament winners of worldwide events and select tournaments on the PGA Tour of Australasia, the Sunshine Tour (South Africa), the Asian Tour and the Japan Golf Tour.

2018 WGC Events: Mexico City in March (winner, Phil Mickelson); Austin, Texas in March (winner, Bubba Watson), Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio Aug. 2-5 (event moving to Memphis in 2019); Shanghai, China in October.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan replied, “as of now Tiger Woods (ranked 88th in the world as he begins a comeback) would not qualify” … and with a smile added, “The next time you see him ask him that question.”

And he quickly shifted to the core of hot young players like Masters champ Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and current FedEx Cup champ Justin Thomas, who attended Thursday’s announcement at the FedEx Events Center at Shelby Farms.

“I haven’t had a chance to visit here because I take off the week before any major event,” Thomas said of the Classic, which for several years has been held the week before the U.S. Open. “But the guys who play here rave about the course, the people and they say the hospital is a powerful experience for anyone who goes there. I’m definitely looking forward to being a part of that.”

Thomas was runner-up in the WGC event in Mexico in March, “losing to old Phil Mickelson, who is one of the guys who raves about Memphis and St. Jude … Maybe I can get my revenge on him here next year.”

The announcement climaxes conversations that began 2 ½ years ago, according to Monahan.

“We came to Memphis with ideas to talk to the leadership team at FedEx Cup about where we were going with the FedEx Cup,” he said of the year-ending championship playoff, which began in 2007. A 10-year extension was signed last spring. “We thought we had a pretty good plan to take the FedEx Cup to the next level."

But after making a 90-minute presentation, Monahan said the conversation quickly turned to the Classic, and what the PGA could do to make that better, "to get more players here, and to showcase this city and this area.”

But Monahan said that, at the time, little could be done. But when renewal negotiations with Bridgestone for the Akron WCG event broke down last fall, “we made one phone call to FedEx, and while it took more discussions than that, they were right on board.”

Besides golf’s four major events – The Masters, the U.S. and British opens and PGA Championship, and the Tournament Players Championship, the four WGC events (with purses in the $10 million range) are the ones that draw the best players like clockwork.

“Basically a player misses a WGC event because his wife is pregnant, or he’s injured,” Monahan said.

Russ Bates of Collierville and Terry Dunger of Bartlett were among several longtime tournament volunteers who attended the announcement.

“It’s incredible. The best thing for golf in Memphis since FedEx saved the tournament a few years ago (after the collapse of previous sponsor Stanford Financial),” Bates said. “The only sports announcement as big in this city’s history is the Grizzlies coming here (from Vancouver).”

Dunger remembers the mood after Stanford’s sudden exit.

“They were about a year from collapse … it was bad. Now … this is just tremendous.”

“This is an historic day … I’m pleased for our great city, for FedEx, for the PGA and for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” FedEx president and COO David Bronczek said about the announcement, which he joked “was the least best-kept secret in a long while.”

“I don’t think there will be an event in this city more widely broadcast around the world,” Bronczek said. “This will change the way the world looks at our city, the way golfers look at our city and the way they look at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Hopefully this is the start of a long-term relationship second to none.”

He added, “it’s part of a heartfelt commitment that FedEx has to this city. I hope you know that.”

Jack Sammons, chairman of the FedEx St. Jude Classic board, said, “Look at this center, and the beautiful lake outside … if FedEx decided to stay in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1973 this would be a prison and some soybeans. FedEx delivers for this community every day.”

The Classic, which will have its last run June 7-10, has more than 1,800 volunteers.

“We’re excited, and ready to do even more next year,” Sammons said.

Monahan said he had gotten excited by the positive response among competitors and tour officials as the news started to leak out, “and the energy I feel from the crowd in this room gets me even more excited.”

Bronczek mentioned how his company, during its 30-plus years of association with this, the PGA Tour’s third oldest stop, more than $38 million had been raised for St. Jude.

Monahan said that, during its 50-year history, PGA events had raised $2.7 billion for various charities, then added, “but this tournament’s relationship with St. Jude gave us the template for our fundraising model.”

ALSAC/St. Jude CEO Richard Shadyac said he had been thinking about the original bonds between Memphis’ PGA event and the hospital that entertainer Danny Thomas built here in 1962.

“Danny marveled at how the tournament gave the hospital a national platform during a time where we did no advertising,” Shadyac said. “Now it’s a huge feeling to know that St. Jude, through this event, is going to have a global platform where people around the world will get to know what kind of resource for children this is. FedEx delivers for us, and for this city so many times, and they deliver to many worthy causes across this country.”

Monahan said fans, media and players who come from all corners of the globe to WGC events mean an economic impact of $40 million to $60 million to a community. Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane, while not sure of the estimate for an event here, said, “it will easily be double or triple what we see for the Classic now.”

Former PGA tournament champion Shaun Micheel and Senior PGA star Loren Roberts, who live by TPC Southwind, said the course will present a challenge for the world’s best.

“It’s not all about hitting, and with the changes they’ve made over the years you see it in the Classic scores,” Micheel said.

“It’s not the 26-under par John Cook had (in 1996),” Roberts said. “These days the winner of the tournament is more like 10-12 under par. You have to be accurate and stay out of the Bermuda rough.”

Micheel added, “I grew up with FedEx. My father was one of the first pilots they hired so I know what the company is about … and they have given Memphis a great gift.”

Shadyac said that he and his fundraising organization are just now starting to consider, and plan, for the opportunities that the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational might offer.

“But we have some smart folks at St. Jude and smart folks with FedEx," he said. "We’ll get it figured out.”

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