Organizers are striving to maintain WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational traditions


The idea was simple.

When Memphis’ annual PGA Tour event earned a World Golf Championships designation, officials and organizers decided the first such tournament at TPC Southwind in 2019 would feature a subtle but proud theme: Memphis itself.

Both of its title sponsors were well represented. Barbecue was a focal point. The emphasis was to highlight the hallmarks of the Bluff City as best it could for golfers, fans and spectators throughout and around the 240-acre venue. But any hopes of establishing any sort of tradition tied to the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational appeared to be dashed when the PGA Tour announced earlier this month that fans – which showed up in record-number droves in 2019 – would not be allowed on-site due to health and safety concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Basically, every single thing we’ve done and were planning to do has been altered,” WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational executive director Darrell Smith said. “Our job is to create awareness, drive revenue and drum up excitement. I would tell you that’s our primary job. When you’re operating an event without spectators, that changes drastically.”

Smith described last year’s plan as “hyper focused” on making sure Memphis was well represented across the grounds. In light of the drastically different circumstances, coordinators are improvising.

“We want this to be Memphis’ WGC,” Smith said. “So, last year, we debuted ‘The Pit,’ an area between the No. 8 tee and No. 9 tee, between the two silos, that had four Memphis institutions serving barbecue. We did the same thing around Nos. 14, 15 and 16 with the Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen.”

So, rather than do away with the concept completely, organizers partnered with Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, Central BBQ, Hog Wild BBQ and Germantown Commissary to keep up the spirit of the event – even if it’s from a distance – by offering a variety of catering packages for pick-up or delivery at discounted rates (through Aug. 2), which will also include various tournament merchandise.

“What we’ve done this year, we’ve tried to create some energy around ‘The Pit at Home,’” Smith said. “We’re encouraging people who won’t be on-site to watch the broadcast but also get a little taste of Memphis and what was on the grounds last year.”

The tournament is also going old-school in its preparations for possible inclement weather. In keeping with social distancing efforts, officials are doing away with the 15-passenger vans that are reserved for shuttling golfers off the course when bad weather strikes.

“Now, it’ll be 80-plus golf carts,” Smith said. “If we have a weather situation, we’ll have to tell Dustin Johnson, ‘Go grab your cart and drive to the clubhouse.’ Flexibility is the key. There’s not really a playbook to put on a golf tournament in the middle of a pandemic. But we do have a pretty good plan. And I do think the Tour has done a great job of adopting a plan and having it be an evolving plan.”

One tradition that will continue despite the unique circumstances, Smith said, is the Hours For St. Jude Program. The initiative, which began in 2013, consists of tournament volunteers raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. To date, the program has generated more than $1.4 million.

Despite a drastic reduction in the number of on-site volunteers for this year’s tournament, more than $220,000 has already been raised, according to Smith.

“We’re well known on the Tour to have a very proud volunteer group and a group that’s just had a lot of history with our event,” he said. “That’s going to look different this year. But we’ve been able to keep Hours For St. Jude intact.”



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