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Preparations underway for WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational

Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy have qualified

By Updated: September 30, 2018 7:53 PM CT
<strong>Shannon Barnes, an employee of Sanders Golf, digs out a section of the TPC Southwind driving range as the course prepares to expand for next year's FedEx St. Jude Invitational.&nbsp;The area is the future home of a new Zoysia grass tee deck that will be used once a year for the&nbsp;<span>World Golf Championships.&nbsp;</span>Previously, the tee deck had consisted of Bermuda grass.</strong>&nbsp; (Houston Cofield/Daily Memphian)

Shannon Barnes, an employee of Sanders Golf, digs out a section of the TPC Southwind driving range as the course prepares to expand for next year's FedEx St. Jude Invitational. The area is the future home of a new Zoysia grass tee deck that will be used once a year for the World Golf Championships. Previously, the tee deck had consisted of Bermuda grass.  (Houston Cofield/Daily Memphian)

The first FedEx St. Jude Invitational, a World Golf Championships event, is still almost 10 months away. But at TPC Southwind near the tournament office, a backhoe stands on a hill ready to be put to work.

That hill was the former home of “The Hub” hospitality/food court area for the FedEx St. Jude Classic – and is the future home of a new Zoysia grass tee deck that will be used once a year for the WGC.

Already, American and European Ryder Cup players have qualified for the event. Meaning Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka, among others, from the U.S. team, and Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood, among others, from the European team.

Previously, the tee deck had consisted of Bermuda grass. It’s a change that the tournament’s executive director Darrell Smith, who formerly was tournament director of the FESJC, says had been on the agenda for a while.

“It’s a practical thing that when the best players in the world show up they can be hitting on grass that’s similar to the grass they’ll be hitting in competition on the fairways,” Smith said. “It also helps with distance. These guys are putting the ball 350 yards.”

To be sure, Smith & Co. want to do all they can to be hospitable hosts when as many as 50 of the top players in the Official World Golf Ranking come to Memphis the week of July 22-28, 2019. While an appearance by Woods, who recently won the PGA Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta for his first victory in more than five years, would be his first in Memphis, Johnson has won the FESJC twice, including in 2018.

Mickelson and Koepka also have been in FESJC fields and this summer said they believe TPC Southwind will work well for a WGC event. Johnson agreed, saying, “It’s a tough track.”

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

The PGA Tour owns and operates the tournament now and PGA officials will have discretion over the course set-up. But the course itself should be in even better condition than it has been in June, Smith says.

“Our growing season is much longer,” he said. “I would expect a healthier rough. Now, we’ll have to decide if we’re gonna grow the rough up and how we’ll set up the golf course, and that’s outside my realm. That’s PGA officials. I don’t think there’s a huge desire to do too much to the golf course, but we expect it will be healthier later in the year.”

Already, the course is considered challenging when golfers end up hitting from places they would rather not.

“You can attack a lot of flags if you’re in the fairway,” Koepka said. “But if you miss fairways out here, it’s not easy.”

Other changes coming for the first WGC: The TV compound located between Holes 13 and 14 will move to the back part of the range in the operations area to accommodate the need for more space. The media center, which had been on the ground floor of the clubhouse, is moving to a larger temporary structure between the putting range and first tee. It will have more than 200 work spaces for a media contingent that is expected to be much larger and have more of an international flavor.

“And we’re going to lower the spectator hill behind the green on 18 where all the hospitality is,” Smith said, adding, “The golf hole won’t play any different.”

At the FESJC, crowds typically were concentrated around a couple of marquee groups. Now, almost every group will have big names. Which means the entire course is going to get more spectator traffic.

“Maybe Jordan Spieth on the front nine and Tigers Woods on the back nine,” said Smith. “You’ll see a lot more improvements all across the golf course. They won’t be as concentrated around the clubhouse, 18, 17 and 16.”

Tickets for the WGC-FedEx Invitational just went on sale. Day grounds passes are $45 and weekly passes are $120, through the end of October. Price increases will be phased in as the tournament gets closer, but Smith says the increases will not be dramatic – no $90 day passes or $400 weekly passes.

The players, however, are seeing a huge jump in the purse. It was $6.6 million for the last FESJC. It will be $10 million for the first WGC.

The Memphis event is the last of the four WGC events on the calendar. The first, the HSBC Champions, will be played in Shanghai, China, Oct. 25-28. Next up is the Mexico Championship in Mexico City Feb. 21-24. Then the Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas, March 27-31.

The FESJC has been around for 61 continuous years, or since Billy Maxwell won the first Memphis PGA Tour stop in 1958 at the old Colonial Country Club. Since then, the championship trophy has been handed to some of golf’s biggest names – from Jack Nicklaus to Lee Trevino to Gary Player and, most recently, Dustin Johnson.

Smith estimates last year’s FESJC drew around 50,000 people for the week.

“The FedEx St. Jude Classic was healthy and people bought tickets,” he said. “I’m not convinced everybody used the tickets. It’s almost like they were just supporting the tournament and they’d make a game-time decision on if they were gonna come. Is Phil Mickelson in the lead? Did he make the cut? Did Dustin Johnson?”

There will be no cut on the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. And Smith says he has been told that Tiger Woods alone could spike attendance by 10,000. He expects the tournament to become a regional draw, given that cities such as Nashville, Birmingham and Little Rock don’t have a regular PGA Tour stop.

The challenge is to simultaneously preserve some of the down-home “our tournament” feel that the FESJC had while embracing this new, world class event.

“Memphis is unique, they want it to still be Memphis,” Smith said, adding that he expects they again will have the 1,600 to 2,000 volunteers that they counted on for the FESJC. “I’m a Memphian and I get it and I want to celebrate everything great about our city.  But it is going to become bigger.

“I don’t think people will really realize how big it is until it happens the first year and they see the guys, 'There is Joran Spieth, there is Rory McIlroy.’ ”

 



<strong>Shannon Barnes, an employee of Sanders Golf, digs out a section of the TPC Southwind driving range as the course prepares to expand for next year's PGA Tour.</strong>&nbsp;<strong>The hill was the former home of &ldquo;The Hub&rdquo; hospitality/food court area for the FedEx St. Jude Classic.</strong> (Houston Cofield/Daily Memphian)

Shannon Barnes, an employee of Sanders Golf, digs out a section of the TPC Southwind driving range as the course prepares to expand for next year's PGA Tour. The hill was the former home of “The Hub” hospitality/food court area for the FedEx St. Jude Classic. (Houston Cofield/Daily Memphian)

Topics

WGC Golf Darrell Smith Tiger Woods Don Wade
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has covered Memphis sports since 1998, voted on Baseball's Hall of Fame and the Heisman Trophy, and remains stunned his Kansas City Royals won a second World Series in his lifetime.


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