It’s impossible to think of professional golf in Memphis without thinking of its title sponsor (FedEx) or charity of choice (St. Jude). Likewise the name Phil Cannon, tournament director of the FedEx St. Jude Classic since 1999. (The 2013 FESJC tees off Thursday at Southwind.)
Memphis has been a big-league golf town for 56 years now. The FESJC seems to be embraced by many, but taken for granted by some. What’s been the key to its success across generations of golf fans and players?
We have had a legacy in Memphis that we don’t take for granted. I like to say we’re celebrating our first anniversary for the 56th time. We truly have to reinvent ourselves year after year. I’ve seen some Memphis institutions take their place in the market place for granted, and we don’t want to succumb to that lethargy. We try to stay fresh and keep the vitality at a high pitch. We changed our ad agency this past year and filmed two television commercials . . . two more than we ever shot before. We created some buzz with those spots.
How important was the return of FedEx as title sponsor in 2011?
I don’t want this to sound too biblical, but they were the savior of our event. Our event was literally within days of being taken off the PGA Tour. You can’t say enough about Fred Smith and Mike Glenn and those guys with FedEx. They saw the impact our event has, especially on St. Jude, and they rescued a local asset. They’re smart, savvy business people. You know, we were their first sports-marketing property, back in 1986. Now they’re one of the world’s leaders in that industry.
The players seem to generally like the Southwind course, particularly since the event was moved to the “cooler” days of early June. What kind of feedback do you get about the course itself?
Since 2005, when we renovated and the bent-grass greens were removed and the champion Bermuda greens put in, our golf course has become a true championship test. Prior to 2005, in many circles Southwind was considered the fifth-best course in Memphis. John Cook shot 26-under here in 1996. He didn’t do us any favors. Since 2005, we’ve had less than 15 guys finish 10 under par for the week.
Do you have a favorite spot on the course to watch the action?
I love the 15th hole. A lot of people don’t get down there; it’s the farthest [east] from the clubhouse and farthest from 18. It’s a beautiful par-4. Then the 11th hole is fun, with the par-3 over the water and the mini-island green.
What do you consider the toughest hole on the course?
Fourteen is the toughest hole [a par 3]. We’ve actually put some benches and a small tent there, to give the players a rest who are waiting to tee off. There’s usually a wait on that tee, because somebody’s invariably in the water or taking a ruling on the hole.
Which players do you enjoy watching these days?
I’m partial to the local players, but seeing the best athletes in the world at their sport, and making it look so easy is compelling. Bob Estes will break Loren Roberts’ record with his 25th start here. You get to interface with the past champions: David Toms, Justin Leonard, Brian Gay. And some players turned pro at our event: Fredrik Jacobson and Billy Horschel are in that group. It’s gratifying to know you’ve helped change a young man’s life.
Last year’s FESJC champ, Dustin Johnson, seems bound for major titles. Who else in this year’s field might be a rising star?
Dustin has charisma coming out his veins. I don’t think he realizes how good he is. Derek Ernst is 22 and won the Wells Fargo Championship a couple of weeks ago. Sean O’Hair and D.A. Points also have game. There are 156 golfers and 156 stories.
The best golfers in the world playing this week will be in Memphis. But there remains one glaring absence. Any reason Tiger Woods has chosen not to play in Memphis since turning pro?
Tiger Woods will play the Memphis event when it’s right for Tiger Woods and not before. He historically does not play a week before a major. His career is based on chasing Jack Nicklaus’s record [of 18 major titles]. We’ll get Tiger when our schedule works for Tiger. I don’t think he has anything against Memphis, and he’s heard great things about our golf course. If you look at the entire PGA schedule, you’d probably find that half the tournaments have never had Tiger at their event. We certainly don’t have a chip on our shoulder.
Share some Memphis golf memories. Al Geiberger’s 59 in 1977 was epic. But is there another player, shot, or tournament that stands out in your mind?
I think 2005 was one of the banner years, mainly because of two guys: Brett Favre and Bill Murray. They really set the tone in the Wednesday pro-am. We had an amazing week. That was Justin Leonard’s first win here. It was a zenith for us. But every year brings new memories. Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy fighting it out last year was epic.