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VOL. 133 | NO. 115 | Friday, June 8, 2018

Golfers Take Aim at FESJC While Looking Toward WGC in 2019

By Don Wade

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For Daniel Berger, the FedEx St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind is the happiest golfing place on earth.

“I feel really good every time I roll up through the parking lot,” Berger said before the start of the 61st and last FESJC. “I just have good memories.”

Specifically, memories of two straight FESJC titles. If Berger were to win this year – play began Thursday, June 7 – he would be the first man to win the tournament three years in a row.

Fans gather around hole No. 9 at TPC Southwind Wednesday, June 6, to watch players finish competing in the FedEx St. Jude Classic InnerWorkings Pro-Am.  (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Next year, the FESJC shifts from June to late July and becomes the World Golf Championship FedEx St. Jude Invitational. It will showcase the 50 top ranked players, lifting the field to new heights.

Tournament director Darrell Smith conceded there was some concern about this last FESJC, if players who normally play here might skip the event and wait till next year. Instead, two top 10 players in Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka are here and five-time Grand Slam winner and fan favorite Phil Mickelson also returned.

“We’ve been happy with the field and the big jump it took,” Smith said. “We were a little worried at first, but it speaks to what the FedEx St. Jude Classic is and the reason it’s becoming a World Golf Championship.”

In recent years, Mickelson has been a front-and-center ambassador for the FESJC and the TPC Southwind course. On the eve of this year’s tournament, he again called this the “most underrated” course on the PGA Tour.

“It just plays well,” said Mickelson, who tied for second here in 2013 and 2016. “It rewards good shots. It doesn’t beat you up with length. It’s a precision golf course. Nobody really runs away with it because it’s hard to make birdies.

“It’s challenging, but fair.”

Johnson, who is ranked No. 2 in the world, agreed.

“It’s a tough track,” he said. “You’ve got to drive it really straight. You’ve got to hit good iron shots and you don’t have to shoot real low.”

Said Berger: “You don’t have to shoot 63-64-64 to have a chance. You can kind of hang in there for a couple days, and you get hot for a one or two days and you’re right in there coming to the back nine on Sunday.”

The TPC Southwind course offers plenty of opportunities for golf balls to get wet. Most notably on No. 12 and No. 18.

Players who have success here have to balance the configuration of the course, the weather and fairway and green conditions, and their place in the standings.

“Risk-reward is a critical part of this golf course,” Mickelson said. “But sometimes you have to just man up and hit shots and if you pull them off, you make birdies. And if you don’t, you end up hitting the water.”

Austin Cook, who is from Jonesboro, Arkansas, has a strategy for the water holes. He also has a genetic link to this tournament. His grandfather, John Cook, played the final round of the 1965 tournament at Colonial Country Club with Jack Nicklaus. While John Cook faded, Nicklaus forged ahead and won the event.

For the first round of this year’s tournament, Austin Cook was paired with Berger and Dustin Johnson. He didn’t expect it to make him nervous.

“I like the big stage,” he said.

As for his plan with the water holes, Cook said: “My strategy is just kind of aim at the farthest bunker and just try to hit it in that. If it gets into it, then you have a fine angle into the green. But if you come up just short, then it’s perfect.”

Berger was feeling those good vibes as he prepared to go for a threepeat, but he also is looking forward to next year’s tournament being a World Golf Championships event.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Cook said. “We’ve had great fields here in the past, but to bring a World Golf Championship to Memphis is phenomenal. It’s only going to improve the tournament and the city is really going to gather around the event.”

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