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VOL. 133 | NO. 164 | Monday, August 20, 2018

A Tiger in the 2019 Memphis WCG Field? The Odds Keep Getting Better

By Don Wade

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Tiger Woods matters again and so do Sunday afternoons on the PGA Tour (witness the 69 percent spike in TV ratings). Tiger gave us 18 holes of long-anticipated theater at the PGA Championship in St. Louis. The Tiger fist-pump returned and so did the huge galleries and the moving roar that are all part of Tigermania.

No, he did not win his 15th major. Brooks Koepka held him off, winning by two strokes. But in many respects, there were no losers on the final day at Bellerive Country Club.

Back in Memphis, Darrell Smith was tuned into the spectacle just like everyone else. Smith, of course, is tournament director of the World Golf Championships – FedEx St. Jude Invitational, which debuts July 25-28 next year at TCP Southwind.

Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 15th hole on the North Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the second round of Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Smith previously had been tournament director for the FedEx St. Jude Classic. It was an event Tiger never played, and never came close to playing.

The WGC is a different level. A 72-hole, no-cut, stroke-play event for the top 50 players in the world. Once, Tiger’s place in that group was assured. Then, his place outside that group was assured.

After Tiger’s showing at the PGA Championship, he is ranked 26th. Even if he were to take a hard fall in the rankings over the next year, he could still qualify for the WCG by gaining a place on the 2019 Ryder Cup team. At the moment, that seems an almost 100 percent guarantee. Short of that, he could also qualify for the WGC by winning a tour event and having a strength of field rating of 115 or better.

“He’s more likely than ever to come to Memphis to play,” Smith said.

So just imagine what the definition of Tigermania would look like then:

Tiger shaking hands and posing for a photo-op with Penny Hardaway.

People hanging from the balconies of the estate homes around the golf course.

And those “Hush Y’all” signs defenseless against the crowd’s sheer joy.

No doubt, Woods’ game was still far from polished at the PGA. He only hit five of Bellerive’s fairways and 11 greens on the last day, but he also made eight birdies and, as he so often did during his prime, found a way.

“I didn’t drive it good all day,” he said afterward. “I was struggling with my golf swing … So I knew this was going to be a struggle to try and piece together a round, and I did.”

Did he ever. He shot a 6-under-64. And even with that score, he left a lot of shots on the course. He might have won by three strokes as easily as he lost by two.

In recent years at the FESJC, Koepka and Phil Mickelson have been two of the biggest names. Neither has won here, but it’s not just about winning. It’s about being here and being in the hunt.

“Brooks Koepka has been loyal to Memphis and the FedEx St. Jude Classic,” Smith noted.

Having a big-name winner, of course, is always a hope for the local tournament. Makes for easier promotion the next year. But with the WCG coming on line, any winner is a big name.

Smith liked the way things unfolded on the back nine Sunday at Bellerive. In fact, he’d take that exact finish next July.

“Anybody in the tournament business would take it all day long,” he said. “For Tiger to be back and playing so well, it’s exciting.”

But let’s be clear: Tiger’s comeback, if that’s how we are defining it, is not the game’s only story. It also cannot be counted on going forward because the man is 42 years old and has had four back surgeries.

“I’m in unchartered territory,” Tiger said, “because no one one’s ever had a fused spine hitting it like I’m hitting it.”

A lot could happen between now and the first WGC in Memphis and, unfortunately, some of it could involve Tiger’s doctors.

So Smith is going big-picture.

“Golf is strong right now,” he said. “It’s a positive buzz about Tiger when we talk about the World Golf Championships. But at the end of the day, there’s a buzz about the World Golf Championships outside of Tiger.

“Tiger is just the cherry on top.”

All sundaes – and all Sundays – do not require a cherry on top.

But it sure would be sweet.

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