It is the week before the U.S. Open, the second PGA Tour major of the year, but for the great people of Memphis, Tennessee, nothing beats the lead-in tournament: this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic, the pride of the birthplace of rock n’ roll.
A tenacious field of 156 golfers, including Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, and Adam Scott will try their hand at famed TPC Southwind, attempting to not only capture this tournament, but most looking for momentum heading into Erin Hills in Wisconsin, the host of the 2017 national open of the United States of America.
Known for the blues, Memphis will be all smiles for the fortunate player who triumphantly emerges from the field unscathed.
Originally known as the Memphis Classic, the FedEx St. Jude Classic has been running continuously in Memphis, Tennessee since 1958.
Now a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, the tournament was co-founded by Memphis Restaurant bigwig Vernon Bell, one of the more unheralded names in golf history, whose innovative ideas and contributions were precursors to many advancements in professional golf.
The tournament has had three courses, all in the Memphis area: Colonial Country Club from 1958-1971, Colonial’s relocated course in Cordova from 1972-1988, and TPC Southwind from 1989-present.
The tournament really took off in 1969, when famous entertainer Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz, better known by his stage name, Danny Thomas, agreed to lend his name to the tournament. In return, the tournament made Thomas’ St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital the event’s official charity.
The inaugural 1958 tournament was won by seven-time PGA Tour winner Billy Maxwell, besting Hall of Famer Cary Middlecoff by one stroke. Winners over the years included Middlecoff, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Gene Litler, Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, and Dustin Johnson.
The tournament record-holder for most victories is Dave Hill, who won four times in a seven-year span (1967-1973). The only other players with multiple titles are Trevino with three, and then two apiece for Nick Price, David Toms, and Justin Leonard.
The FedEx St. Jude Classic was the tournament where the first 59 in PGA Tour history was shot. The monumental feat was achieved by Al Geiberger in 1977.
Name: TPC Southwind
Where: Memphis, Tennessee
Distance: 7244 Yards | Par 70
Architect: Ron Prichard, 1987
Winning Share: $1,152,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
The defending champion of the FedEx St. Jude Classic is Daniel Berger. Berger went into the final round at TPC Southwind with a three stroke lead, and was able to hold on despite a three-hour weather delay, and being chased by Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, and Steve Stricker, who all finished in a tie for second, in addition to Dustin Johnson, who took solo-fifth.
It was the 23-year-old Berger’s first career PGA Tour victory, a great follow-up to a season where he was named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
Other Recent Champions
2015: Fabian Gomez
2014: Ben Crane
2013: Harris English
2012: Dustin Johnson
2011: Harrison Frazar
Lowest Final Score: 258 (John Cook, 1996)
Low Round – Tournament: 59 (Al Geiberger, 1977)
Low Round – TPC Southwind: 61 (Jay Delsing, Bob Estes)
Round 1: 4-7:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 2: 4-7:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 3: 1-2:30 PM (Golf Channel); 3-6:00 PM (CBS)
Round 4: 1-2:30 PM (Golf Channel); 3-6:00 PM (CBS)
Storyline 1: Last Chance For Erin Hills
Now that sectional qualifying has concluded (as of Monday), TPC Southwind represents a final chance to qualify for next week’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
The toughest test in golf, the USGA is holding its last few spots for anyone who can sneak into the top 60 in the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) after the FedEx St. Jude Classic.)
The following are the top five players currently not qualified for the U.S. Open, who have the best shot at getting in with a win in Memphis. (Current world ranking is in parenthesis.
5: Chris Kirk (105)
Currently being outside the top 100 in the world, Kirk needs to have an exceptionally good week at TPC Southwind to qualify for his sixth U.S. Open.
Despite being the lowest ranked player on this list, a good argument could be made that Kirk is the most talented player not currently in the U.S. Open field.
From 2014-2015, Kirk won three times and earned over $7.2 million. He tailed off considerably in 2016, missing the cut in all four majors, although he was a factor at the WGC-Match Play (T5) and the BMW Championship (T10).
Kirk played very well during the 2016-17 fall series, with three top 10s in five events, but his play has been mostly miserable since the calendar flipped to 2017, as a T12 at THE PLAYERS is his only top 20.
Still, he is only 32, and it would not be shocking to see him contend at a major.
4: Danny Lee (96)
Like Kirk, Danny Lee was near the top of the golf world in 2015, winning the Greenbrier Classic in addition to three other finishes inside the top three.
The 26-year-old from New Zealand got his 2016-17 season off to a nightmare start, but has played better since March, and specifically in the past month.
Lee has two top 10s in his last six events, finishing T5 at the Byron Nelson Classic and T6 at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational.
One thing not helping Lee, however, will be familiarity with the course. He has played the tournament only once, and it was back in 2014, where he finished T32. He will need to finish about 31 spots better than that to jump from No. 96 into the top 60.
3: Ian Poulter (83)
Undoubtedly the most accomplished player on this list (since we omitted #247 Vijay Singh anyway), Poulter emerged from an extended slump by finishing runner-up at THE PLAYERS Championship.
He was originally scheduled for sectional qualifying in Surrey, England, but withdrew his intentions, instead opting to attempt to qualify via the FedEx St. Jude.
The 41-year-old has never won a major, but does have eight top-10s on the major stage, most recently when he posted T6 at the 2015 Masters.
Like Danny Lee, Poulter hasn’t played TPC Southwind since 2014, but finished T6 in that event off the strength of a final round 64.
2: Soren Kjeldsen (74)
Kjeldsen is that guy you always forget about until he inevitably finds his way onto the early round leaderboard at a major.
The 42-year-old from Denmark doesn’t play a lot on the PGA Tour, but has played well in big events over the past two years, posting an unexpected T5 at this year’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and finishing in the top 10 of two 2016 majors (T7 at The Masters, T9 at The Open Championship).
1: Kyle Stanley (92)
The 29-year-old Stanley is in the midst of an extremely impressive comeback season. In 17 events this season, Stanley has made more money than he did in the past three seasons combined (68 events), and his four 2017 top 10s are three more than he did from 2014-2016.
He has been even more impressive as of late, playing in the final pairing at THE PLAYERS, where he finished T4, and posting a T6 at last week’s Memorial Tournament. He still has work to do on the greens, but anyone who ranks in the top five on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, like Stanley, is going to be a threat anywhere.
Honorable Mention: Hudson Swafford (81), Sung Kang (85), Ryan Palmer (95)
Storyline 2: Mmmmm… Berger
Daniel Berger’s first career victory, which came at last year’s FedEx St. Jude Classic, happened against an impressive leaderboard as Berger held off the tremendous runner-up trio of Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, and Steve Stricker, in addition to Dustin Johnson, who finished T5.
The victory was the highlight of the now 24-year-old Berger’s season, which also included five additional top 10 finishes, most notably a T9 at THE PLAYERS Championship and a T10 at the BMW Championship, the third event of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
In 2017, Berger has not quite become the week-in, week-out contender that many predicted, but has still played well. He has no wins this season (yet), but was a runner-up at a WGC event, the HSBC Champions, last October, and was solo-fifth at the Shell Houston Open in early April, which preceded The Masters.
When Berger tees off on Thursday to begin his Memphis defense, it will be the first time he has played in nearly a month. He will be hoping that the extended break will be just what he needed, as his last action was a disastrous 77-78 weekend at THE PLAYERS.
Berger ranks well-above average in most statistical categories this season, and has really only struggled around the greens, particularly when he has needed to hit out of the sand.
Storyline 3: Phil: In It To Win It
TPC Southwind is constructed in such a way that if it had not opened in 1988, it might appear that it was built with Phil Mickelson in mind. Granted, with his short game, that could be said about pretty much every course, but TPC Southwind seems to match Phil’s strengths especially well, which has been reflected in his results there:
The thing about that set of results that should really scare the field is that Phil has made it abundantly clear that he plays the FedEx St. Jude mostly as U.S. Open prep. Imagine how good he would be if he prepared with this tournament in mind.
This year, we will find out.
In news that was shocking to many, Mickelson announced over this past weekend that he will not be playing the U.S. Open this year, and will instead attend the high school graduation of his oldest daughter, Amanda, who is as exceptional a student as Phil is a golfer (she is valedictorian and class president).
The U.S. Open has been Phil’s white whale, the one he wants more than anything. He has finished runner-up six times, and only needs a win there to complete the career Grand Slam.
Now 46-years-old, which is considered quite advanced in golf years, he may not have many more legitimate opportunities to capture his country’s Open. It speaks very highly about how much Phil prioritizes family.
So, what does this all mean for the FedEx St. Jude Classic? It means that Phil is in it, to win it. Based on his skill level and past results, few are likely to bet against him.
Storyline 4: The PGA Debut of Braden Thornberry
At the recent NCAA Men’s Golf Championship, easily the most impressive performance was strung together by Ole Miss sophomore Braden Thornberry, who navigated difficult conditions at Rich Harvest Farms to capture the NCAA individual title.
Thornberry was especially dominant on par-4s, where he was SIX strokes better than the next best in the field. A five-time winner during the regular season, was given a sponsor’s exemption to the FedEx St. Jude Classic, which will be his first PGA Tour event.
Whether or not Braden Thornberry becomes the next big thing in American golf, and based on early turns, it could certainly happen, those who want to be able to say they saw him when he first hit the PGA Tour will need to tune in this week.
Other Notables In the Field
It has been an up-and-down season for the extremely talented Koepka, who was playing atrocious golf in February and March, but bounced back with in April, finishing in the top 16 of five consecutive tournaments, including the WGC-Match Play (T9), The Masters (T11), and THE PLAYERS Championship (T16).
He has cooled off since that stretch, finishing outside the top 30 in his last two starts, but he has tremendous history at TPC Southwind, finishing runner-up last year, T3 in 2015, and T19 in 2014. Nobody would be surprised if Koepka makes this his first victory in over two years.
The immensely popular Fowler is as desperate for a major win as anyone on Tour, and he is going to be very motivated to play well in Memphis and bring some momentum to Erin Hills.
Ranked ninth in the world, Fowler has five top 10s this season in just 11 events, most recently finishing T2 at The Memorial just last week.
This will be just his second attempt at the FedEx St. Jude, but he did play well in his prior appearance, finishing T13 in 2014.
Fowler leads the Tour in shots gained: total, which bodes well for his chances here (and everywhere for that matter). He has been especially impressive with his putting and his approach shots.
The 34-year-old Molinari from Italy has quietly been having a tremendous season, both in the U.S. and Europe, and has improved his world ranking from 80th after last year’s FedEx St. Jude Classic to his current position of 16th.
The combination of being #2 on Tour in driving accuracy and #2 in strokes gained: approach-the-green has constantly been giving him great chances for low scores, which for the most part, he has been taking advantage of (10th in birdie average).
Molinari’s last two starts were the flagship events of both the U.S. and the European Tours. He played great in both: finishing T6 at THE PLAYERS Championship and solo-second at the BMW PGA Championship.
The 2001 Open Championship winner and former world No. 1 Duval does not play much anymore (this will be just his second 2017 start), but he is still remembered fondly enough that he brings a decent amount of attention.
He has a spot in this week’s field even though he has not made the cut at TPC Southwind since a T60 finish in 2008. Now 45 years old, Duval spends most of his time as a television golf analyst.
A bit of a surprise entry, Scott has not played this tournament since 2007, when a final round 75 turned a 54-hole lead into a seventh place finish.
Scott has not contended much this season, but his two best finishes were both recent, and in big events: a T9 at The Masters and a T6 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
His only missed cut this season was at the Shell Houston Open, the tournament played the week before The Masters. That makes two ways Scott hopes history does not repeat itself this week.
Horschel’s victory at the AT&T Bryon Nelson, where he defeated Jason Day in a playoff, snapped a string of four consecutive missed cuts. Hope that the win would reinvigorate his career has somewhat faded as he has just a T34 (the Dean & DeLuca) and a missed cut (The Memorial) since.
That all being said, he has a great recent history at the FedEx St. Jude, finishing T8 in 2015, T6 in 2014, and T10 in 2013, his last three starts in the event. Horschel currently ranks 10th on Tour in Greens in Regulation (GIR) Percentage, which has traditionally been a strong indicator for success at TPC Southwind.
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