Monday, June 4, 2018

Q & A: FESJC Tournament Director Darrell Smith

Posted By on Mon, Jun 4, 2018 at 9:42 AM

Memphis Flyer: This is your third year as tournament director. What have you learned since taking the position?

Darell Smith:
I’ve been around the event for quite some time, and to [my predecessor] Phil Cannon’s credit, I’d been given a lot of exposure to the operation. What I love most is the excitement leading into tournament week, and all the things we have to do. It’s a long list, but that excitement is something I thoroughly enjoy. There are a lot of moving parts: players, customers, volunteers, staff. Everyone is pulling in the same direction to put on the best show we possibly can come tournament week.

The player relationships have been fun. This time of year, we’re talking about sponsor exemptions. Those are some tough conversations, but rewarding conversations at the same time. I’m a relationship person and we have relationships with people all across the country, a lot of good, young players. You’re making some pretty big decisions for some young men who may have a career in professional golf. I wish I could give an exemption to everyone who writes us with a request to play.

It really is a relationship business, more so than many other sports.

DS: There are things players have done for us or [St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital] that influence our decisions. At the end of the day, we’re trying to raise funds and awareness for St. Jude.

MF: The big news this year is actually 2019 and the tournament’s transition to a World Golf Championship event, one of just four on the planet (also Mexico City, Shanghai, and Austin, Texas). Summarize how this unfolded.

DS: We have a title sponsor [FedEx Corp.] that believes in professional golf at an extremely high level: what it does for their business, how it impacts their business. Being attached to this event since 1986 and the FedEx Cup since 2007, they see the value of the PGA Tour brand. We knew there was an opportunity to enhance our event, and with FedEx’s support, we were able to make that happen.

What it means for this event and this city, I probably can’t put into words until you see it in 2019. The World Golf Championship puts our event on a whole new platform. It will be called the World Golf Championship-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. The field will take on a whole new look. The event we’re replacing — in Akron, Ohio — had 49 of the top 50 players in the world. That excites me and excites our team. I know it excites Memphis and the surrounding communities.

MF: How will planning — and running — the tournament change when it’s moved from June to August?

DS: The amount of hospitality we have on site will increase. Our “build,” as we call it, will be larger. We’ll probably start the build about when we do now [the week of the Masters in April]; it’ll just be larger. Tents, flooring, all that. At the end of the day, it’s still a golf tournament, which we’ve been producing for 61 years now. There could be some small tweeks to the TPC Southwind golf course, and we’ll get to those as soon as we can after this year’s tournament.

MF: Before 2019, we have the 2018 FedEx St. Jude Classic. Share your elevator pitch for this year’s event.

DS: We’re welcoming back two-time defending champion Daniel Berger. We’re happy that we’ll have Phil Mickelson, who will be playing his sixth straight year here. They’ve set the bar for us. There’s so much to do, and more than just golf. We’re debuting some new hospitality venues on our corporate side.

What’s “Fireworks on the Fairway”?

DS: That’ll be Friday night [after the second round]. Our friends at Southern Security Federal Credit Union came on board as presenting sponsor. It’s really just to keep the party going after play. We’ll finish play around 6:45 p.m., then we encourage everyone to come out to Southwind. Beginning at 5 p.m., admission is free. Parking is just $10 [in Lot C]. If you have to work on Friday, we feel sorry for you, but you can go home, pick up the kids, and come out to have a great time. We’ll have live music and around 9 p.m., we’ll shoot some fireworks. Bring a chair or blanket. This is part of our continued evolution: doing things outside the world of golf. We want this to be the largest community event it can possibly be.

MF: You mentioned community. How many volunteers are on board this year?

DS: Eighteen-hundred volunteers. It’s the fabric of the PGA Tour. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to produce this every year. The majority are from the Mid-South, but we have a committee leader who lives in Columbus, Ohio. This tournament is far bigger than one player, one vendor. It really connects. People know about St. Jude, and they’re committed to the event.

MF: Are you able to watch much golf during tournament week? And are there certain players you make time to follow?

DS: I’m a golf fan. I always try and keep my eye on the leader board. I’m always interested in sponsor exemptions, seeing how those individuals play. We’re offering them that spot, and we like to see them play well. I don’t really have a rooting interest, but I love our past champions, love that they come back and devote time to us. We like Brooks Koepka playing our event last year, then going to the U.S. Open and winning. Playing our event may have had no impact on him winning the Open, but inside our walls, we think it does.

Did you have a favorite golfer growing up?

DS: I grew up watching Tiger Woods. He got me interested in golf. I started working in the game of golf when I was 14. I got a job as a cart boy in Bartlett, and I’ve worked in the game [for 21 years now]. Watching Tiger and his dominance, that’s what I remember.

MF: Putting you on the spot: Who will wear the winner's seersucker jacket this weekend?

DS: I’m gonna go with Brooks Koepka. He’s played us religiously over the last several years. He’s back from injury and is playing awesome. We’d love to see him, as reigning U.S. Open champion, play well. He’s said this golf course sets up perfectly for him. He’s my pick for the 2018 FESJC champion.

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