Thirty-three of the world’s best golfers were on the charter flight from Northern Ireland on Sunday night, and they landed at Gate B43 around 12:15 a.m. Monday because it’s one of the few gates left at Memphis International Airport that can handle customs. The only other time it’s used is for sporadic flights to Cancun, Mexico.
Ford Expeditions were waiting on the tarmac for each of them, ready to whisk everyone from Dustin Johnson to Jordan Spieth to Justin Thomas away in the middle of the night. They began trickling into the TPC Southwind driving range about 10 hours later.
None of them, contrary to what you might have seen or heard on social media, were jarred by what they saw ahead of the first World Golf Championship-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
“The four majors and The Players (Championship) and the World Golf Championships,” said former Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, “those are the nine biggest events in golf.”
Which is precisely why all of Memphis is so excited about this week, with or without Tiger Woods and with or without naysayers like CBS Sports golf writer Kyle Porter.
This isn’t meant to pile on Porter and the incendiary tweet he fired off Sunday during the final round of The Open Championship in Portrush.
It’s to point out that the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational means more to us than it does to the media that cover golf regularly. It means more to us than the casual viewer at home.
For many Memphians, this week feels like the culmination of 62 years hosting PGA Tour events. It feels like a new beginning for the city’s annual golf tournament, one filled with top-notch fields and global prestige. It just feels different and bigger.
Just look inside the new Phil Cannon Media Center, which went from the cart barn of the TPC Southwind clubhouse to a jumbo air-conditioned tent with two super-sized flat screen projectors to service the more than 300 credentialed media members from around the world.
For those who haven’t lived through this tournament’s history, perhaps this week feels a bit awkward because of the positioning right after The Open Championship.
But most of the people who really count in addition to us – the best golfers in the world – don’t feel like that.
“This has transformed the event into an elite event overnight,” former PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley said.
Which is really why, beyond the unnecessary shot at Memphis, Porter’s comments were unwarranted.
To recap, someone representing the broadcast partner of this week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational like Porter shouldn’t be writing “imagine how jarring it’s going to be to go to Memphis, Tennessee for a golf tournament next week” over a picture of another golf course.
And he shouldn’t be responding to the justified criticism of that statement with a patronizing apology, regardless of his original intention.
If he was actually comparing the scenery or the course at Royal Portrush to TPC Southwind, it wasn’t clear initially. But beyond that, he’s wrong.
The golfers who come to Memphis regularly – guys like Brooks Koepka, Johnson and Phil Mickelson – rave about this place.
“It’s got one of the best reputations on Tour,” Bradley said Monday. “It’s just a tough, great course.”
Now it should be noted that Porter’s tweet did get at one notable issue this year. If you ignored that 46 of the world’s top 50 golfers will be here this week, it’s easy to see why a historic event for Memphis is being looked down upon by outsiders.
The PGA Tour deserves some blame for that.
FedEx used its leverage as the title sponsor of the Tour to get a world-class golf tournament in Memphis that still benefits St. Jude, a cause as worthy as any in professional sports. But then the Tour mucked it all up with its new, condensed schedule this season, effectively diminishing an event considered just a notch below a major by putting it immediately after a major.
The logistics of getting here were “brutal,” Bryson DeChambeau said. “A World Golf Championship right after a major … hopefully, they’ll change it eventually.”
And if they do, Memphis still will be there to support the tournament. Just like it has been since 1958, through course changes, name changes and even bankruptcy fears a decade ago.
That’s why Porter is off-base. That’s why, for that matter, Shane Lowry was wrong Sunday when asked about the throng of fans in his gallery in Northern Ireland. He joked, “Next week I’ll be in Memphis and there’ll probably be 10 men and a dog following me.”
He might be right about the dog part because TPC Southwind superintendent Nick Bisanz is known to walk the course with his two dogs, Millie and Honey.
But tournament director Erin Stone noted WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational officials expect attendance to be double what it was in 2018.
It’s a testament to all the work done on behalf of this event over the years, not just in the months since this became a WGC event.
Because here’s a story Porter probably didn’t know when he sent out that tweet: Not that long ago, tournament president and general chairman Jack Sammons referred to this as the tater tot open because “we couldn’t afford meat” for the Monday pro-am.
“We had them every which way,” Sammons explained. “With cheese, without cheese, with peppers, sugar, whatever you wanted on the damn thing as long as it wasn’t meat. In the early years, we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t make any money. If we could break even, we were thrilled to death. For the most part, we were flat busted with no hope for advancement.”
That history – history that means so much more to Memphians than anybody else – is the most jarring part of all.
“In my wildest imagination,” Sammons said, “I could never dream we’d be here.”