FedEx St. Jude Classic: A Whole New Level of Respect

I must say that when the realization came that it was the week for the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, my excitement meter barely moved. And it must have been a general malaise because my readership fell off to lackadaisical from pretty damn good. Whatever it was, it was going around.

I think it started with the fact that Memphis was the lead-in tournament to the U.S. Open next week. With memories of stultifying humidity, thunderstorms and a quirky golf course, it wasn’t exactly as much a disappointment as it was a letdown. Hey, I Monday qualified in a bunch a very humid places, but the overriding memory was it would have been great if it wasn’t. 

And so the first thing that happened was the weather was perfect. The temperatures were moderate, the humidity was reasonable, the winds were tricky but not brutal and there were no rain delays. Just the images of the blue sky with harmless fluffy cumulus clouds and players without sweat-soaked shirts and pants was a winner.

The second thing that happened was that the players lauded the golf course and its condition. Here are some quotes from this week’s contenders:

Harris English, winner at just 12-under par:

This golf course is tough.  We’ve got to hit fairways and greens.

Got to hang tough.  This golf course is hard, there’s a lot of hard golf shots.

It’s real hard to be aggressive with these pins.  You’re trying to go at these pins and make a big number in a hurry.  I’m happy with playing 15, 20 feet away from the pin and get that chance of going for it with a wedge, go for it.

It’s going to play tough again tomorrow.  You need to play steady.  It’s all about fairways and greens out here.  I know people say that about every golf course, but if you’re playing out of the trees and rough here, you’re not going to play very well.

Phil Mickelson, T2, at 10-under par:

I really like playing here.  It’s a good golf course.  It forces you to hit the fairways, a premium on hitting the fairways.  The only difference the grass on the greens is a little bit different, but the shot making, I thought it was very similar.  The grass here will be very similar to next year’s down at Pinehurst as well.  It will be a good spot to get ready for next year’s Open as well.

I thought it was a great golf course.  Demanding off the tee as well into the greens.  It was fun to play.

Got to get the 3-wood in play a little bit more, although next week at Merion distance won’t be as critical as TPC Southwind.  I’ll be able to hit higher and softer shots.

Shawn Stefani, T7, after being the 54-hole leader:

This week was really a good golf course.  I really like the way the course looks and, you know, I’m just trying to focus on one shot at a time and the process right now and just keep going.

The golf course really fits my eye well and I like the way the golf looks.  I kind of feel comfortable on it.

And the irrepressible Ian Poulter, T51, who finally succumbed to the course’s difficulty:

I’m surprised.  I  am.  It’s a difficult golf course.  There’s only two par-5s.  You know, there’s some tricky golf holes out there.  I think, you know, I — it’s one of those types of golf courses.  I think there are some birdie opportunities.

The greens are in great condition, and if you put yourself on 15 greens a day, you’re going to convert some birdies.  Again, there’s still a few holes out there on the golf course which can cut you up.

The South is noted for its “Southern Hospitality,” and Phil Mickelson particularly mentioned that Sunday evening on three separate occasions:

The people have been so nice this week.  I can’t tell you how many people have been — have come up and thanked me for being here.  It feels so good to be appreciated like that and they’ve just been really a lot of fun and nice to be around.

It is cool.  Not only was it great to have the support from the community out and supporting the event, and the hospital, what they do for St. Jude, but also we had great weather this week.

It was a great week.  I had really a wonderful week.  The people here have been so nice and so supportive.  I love what this tournament does for St. Jude’s Hospital.

And you had recent history where Memphis had very popular winners. In 2010, Lee Westwood won in the U.S. for the first time since 1998 in New Orleans. In 2011, Harrison Frazar finally won after almost an entire career; it took him 13 years and 355 tournaments to do it. And in 2012, rising star, Dustin Johnson, notched his sixth win (now at seven and counting).

There was also tremendous drama as the players came down the stretch on the back nine.

Harris English only managed to shoot 1-under in the final round. That moved him into 1st as overnight leader, Shawn Stefani, faded with a 6-over, 76. With him out of the way that left it to the nearby chasers.

Scott Stallings’ 2-under round moved him from 3rd to T2. But he played better than that. A double bogey on 15 and bogey on 18 when he pressed did him in.

Phil Mickelson’s and Ryan Palmer’s 3-under were the low rounds among the leaders, but they both started too far back on too tough a golf course. Mickelson moved up from 6th to T2 and Palmer moved up from 8th to 4th.

Hard-core Monday qualifier from last year — he qualified for 6 events — Patrick Reed spun his wheels at Even par and that dropped him from 3rd to 5th. The old adage snooze you lose is especially true on the PGA Tour. For Reed, who is already a great player and just needs time to put it together like he did on Mondays, his putter failed him with a Strokes Gained Putting of -2.645. But he’s close; he left a couple of bombs dead in the jaws just inches short and none of his makeable putts looked like bad strokes.

And finally, as a footnote on freedom, the low round of the day belonged to Gary Woodland who shot 6-under 64. That moved him up the leaderboard 46 spots to T18. The second lowest round belonged to Russell Henley who moved up 31 spots to T27 with his 4-under 64.

Both of these guys are financially secure, so it is amazing how well you can play when you have nothing to lose. But for less established players, it’s not such a bad thing to be mired way down the leaderboard on Saturday night to prove to themselves that they are capable of shooting low numbers amidst all the sharp elbows of Sunday.

So congratulations to FedEx, TPC Southwind, the local fans and all the volunteers for providing the players with a great environment to put on a captivating show for the rest of us.

Look forward to seeing you again next year.

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