By Dan Reardon
This is the last year for the FedEx St. Jude Classic, which tees off tomorrow at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee. Next year the tournament will have a new date, an upgraded status on the schedule and a longer title — the World Golf Championship FedEx St. Jude Classic. (Try fitting that on a shirt logo.)
The new August date will give players and fans a little relief from the current date that sandwiches Memphis between the Memorial, one of the PGA TOUR’s premier events, and the U.S. Open, the second major.
This final June edition of the FedEx St. Jude Classic will not only feature Daniel Berger, the tournament’s winner two years running, but a headline trio of major championship winners — current U.S. Open Champion, Brooks Koepka, former U.S. Open Champion Dustin Johnson, and former Masters, Open Championship and PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson.
A year ago, TPC Southwind proved a sterner test than the U.S. Open venue, Erin Hills, with Berger’s 10-under winning score six strokes shy of Koepka’s 16-under winning score a week later.
CBS Sports golf analyst Luke Elvy, who will be in the 16th tower this weekend for the FedEx St. Jude Classic, previews the upcoming action.
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Last year the U.S. Open course at Erin Hills crowned a winner who shot six strokes better than Daniel Berger posted in winning at TPC Southwind. What is it about the course that made it a tougher test?
It tests absolutely every part of your game. We’ve seen through the history of this tournament, which has been played at TPC Southwind since 1989, that the best of the best win there. Seven major champions have won at Southwind. World number ones have won there. It really tests all facets of your game. Players need to be on the green and around the greens; there is so much going on with [the] short game… challenging shots and subtle breaks on the surfaces. That’s why we see the elite players come through. What Daniel Berger has done in the last couple of years really points to how good that young man will become.
Do players win at places where the golf course fits their game, or does winning at the same place make them comfortable with the fit? Tiger Woods, for example, has won a large percentage of his tournaments at a handful of courses.
It is the fit of the golf course. Daniel Berger would have played the golf course before he won there and felt that it fits his eye. He hits that lovely, low, penetrating, left-to-right ball flight, the fade for the right-hander. It’s a very strong ball flight when it is windy. And it’s a very good ball flight for TPC Southwind, because many of the doglegs ask players to hit that left-to-right shot.
Once he had a really strong result early, he gained confidence. Ask any PGA TOUR pro who wins any of these tournaments, once they have won at a golf course, their confidence starts to build. And they go there feeling very good about their chances, even if they are not playing their best golf, like Daniel Berger at the moment.
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Beyond the current champion, three major winners headline the top of the field — Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson. Handicap the three of them this week.
They are three of the best players in the world, and all three have played very well at TPC Southwind.
Brooks Koepka lost in a playoff to Berger (along with Phil Mickelson) two years ago. He was a strong contender three years ago. And the way that Brooks Koepka is playing right now, he is the favorite. He has shot three rounds of 63 in his last eight competitive rounds. That says he is back now after his wrist injury.
Dustin Johnson has drifted a little bit since dropping from the world’s number one spot. But he has shown signs of late that he is not really happy about being dethroned by Justin Thomas. And having won here in 2012, Dustin Johnson looks like a strong contender to pick up another win here before the U.S. Open.
Look at Phil Mickelson’s record here without winning. He’s been sublime. The last five years he’s had two runners-up, a tie for fifth, and last year he made a really good push for the title, except for the triple bogey at 12, when he got a piece of the lead.
What a year he’s had. I know he’s had a couple of indifferent performances over the last two or three starts, but this golf course and his desire to pick up the career grand slam next week at Shinnecock, where he finished runner up, [give him a good shot].
It’s hard to single any one of them out, but if I had to, I’d say Brooks Koepka.
What about a less obvious player who might factor in this week?
There are a couple of names that appeal to me. Young Joaquin Niemann is a prodigious amateur out of Chile who turned professional after the Masters. He’s just received special temporary membership from the PGA TOUR after picking up his third top-10 finish in just five starts as a professional. He’s been brilliant. This young fellow has won everything he has played in among the amateur ranks before turning pro. Playing [in] the pay-to-play ranks has never fazed him.
But the one who has a really good chance this week is Peter Uihlein. He was a really talented amateur who won the U.S. Amateur. He went to Europe. He went about his business, like Brooks Koepka. He’s played his way back to the United States. And he came in after a final-round 66 at Muirfield Village. It’s that trending-upwards play that you notice out of a young talent who’s starting to feel comfortable among the world’s elites. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Uihlein stepped up this week and broke through on the PGA TOUR.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.