Phil Mickelson was walking off the 18th green at TPC Southwind Tuesday afternoon, a practice round with new world No. 1 Jon Rahm in the books, and approached me with a question.
“Are you with the local paper?” he asked.
Yes, I answered and so then Mickelson started talking.
About Memphis. About the course. About the city’s golf tournament. Just like he does every year when he plays here. It’s why he’s become the de facto PGA Tour ambassador for Memphis, and a pandemic was not going to stop him from serving in that role again.
“I love this place,” Mickelson said. “It’s a little weird without fans, but we’re just thankful to be here.”
Welcome to the Weird Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. When the best golfers in the world tee off Thursday, it will be a far cry from the last competitive round of golf played at TPC Southwind.
Back then, back when the coronavirus hadn’t consumed our lives, Rory McIroy and Brooks Koepka engaged in a final-round duel. The two best golfers on the planet at the time going head-to-head, with seemingly every Memphis area golf fan on hand to witness it. The scene felt perfect.
This year, when Nashville native Brandt Snedeker and fellow American Billy Horschel faced Europeans Henrik Stenson and Viktor Hovland in a charity match sponsored by FedEx to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, there seemed to be more golf carts than people as the foursome teed off.
Heck, after three years in a row in which inclement weather stayed away from this event, an afternoon thunderstorm ultimately forced the match for charity to end with three holes to go. There’s rain in the forecast Thursday, Friday and Saturday, too.
That’s 2020 for you. No fans, not as much money for St. Jude, and too many bad omens.
“Just as every business, we’ve been impacted by COVID-19 and you can feel that when you’re on site,” tournament director Darrell Smith said.
It does feel intimate. If you’re lucky enough to be allowed inside the grounds.
You see golfers and caddies sitting at picnic tables between the driving range and putting green chatting casually in an area that’s usually overrun with fans.
You can hear Bryson DeChambeau ask his caddie Tuesday, “Driver on the next hole?” and wonder if perhaps the longest hitter on the PGA Tour might try to drive the green on the par-4 12th this week like Happy Gilmore once did in a movie.
You can watch Mickelson on the first tee Wednesday with Rahm, challenging Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay to a match on the front nine in lieu of a practice round (and there’s a good chance more than bragging rights were at stake).
But that’s only if you’re here, and there’s no getting around that this won’t feel right again until Memphis can attend again. It won’t sound or look like the historic Memphis sporting event that’s introduced us to so many wonderful stories and benefited so many worthy causes for more than 60 years.
“It’s the people and the atmosphere, that’s what makes a tournament,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “When you don’t have that, there’s nothing really for them to differentiate themselves. It’s all sort of the same.”
It’s depressing to hear because he’s right. What’s supposed to be a showcase for the city will just be another golf tournament for these golfers, and for many Memphians.
Even worse: McIlroy was asked when he might feel comfortable playing PGA Tour events with fans in attendance again. He hemmed and hawed searching for an answer, and then stumbled on the one we’ve all probably arrived at at some point during this public health crisis.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The real shame, though, is what this all means for St. Jude.
There are no golfers visiting those kids in the hospital this year, and none of those kids are out on the course creating memories with those golfers. With nobody here to buy tickets, or beer, or Pronto Pups, or merchandise, tournament organizers won’t be able to donate nearly as much as previous years.
They’re trying to make up for it the best they can. Wednesday’s charity match raised $200,000. The volunteer organization surrounding the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational has raised another $230,000.
There’s a “Birdies for St. Jude” social media program to solicit more donations, and Rahm, for instance, has pledged to give $1,000 for every birdie and $5,000 for every eagle this week. Justin Thomas is among 40 or so golfers in the 78-person field wearing golf shoes or using putter covers featuring artwork created by St. Jude patients.
There are more St. Jude signs hanging from the houses around TPC Southwind, or at least more of them are visible this year with no grandstands or concessions on the course.
So perhaps that’s why Koepka, the tournament’s defending champion, was talking about St. Jude Wednesday morning with the personal chef he brought to Memphis. Koepka is dealing with a knee injury and not playing nearly as well as he was a year ago. It’s been frustrating, he admitted, and he even made some changes to his swing heading into this week.
But the conversation took away some of that pain.
“I was just thinking to myself, ‘It’s just golf.’ I could be fighting for my life like some of these kids that are in the hospital,” Koepka said. “They’ve got a smile on their face. And yeah, I might be pissed off, I might be mad, but there’s no excuse for me not to have a good attitude and smile all the way through this, because I don’t have to deal with what they have to.”
So yes, this bizarre version of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational must go on. It’s going to be a little weird without Memphis here, but let’s just be thankful it’s still taking place.