When driver meets ball this Thursday at Southwind for the St. Jude Classic, it will mark the 52nd straight year the PGA has made Memphis home for a week. Phil Cannon has been tournament director since the 2000 event. He paused last week just long enough to answer a few questions.
How did you and other tournament officials approach the aftermath of the Stanford Financial crisis?
From a legal standpoint, it was a period of uncertainty. We were kept in the dark for 30 days or so. We heard bits and pieces of news through various media sources, some insider information that led us to believe that we’d be able to conduct the tournament. We weren’t sure about title sponsorship, what the name would be, what the logo would be.
Toward the end of March, we were informed by the PGA Tour that the tournament would be operated as the St. Jude Classic. They turned us loose to swing into action, and to implement the plan we developed over that 30-day dark period. We had our vendors lined up for various signage opportunities. We developed a logo and marketing plan. We intentionally designed a logo that would roughly replicate the dimensions and shape of our former logo, so it would fit our signage. We intentionally went with a one-color logo to simplify printing. It’s been an unusual 90 days for sure.
With the tournament benefiting St. Jude and Phil Mickelson’s wife battling cancer, Lefty will be a great story the moment he tees off on Thursday. (This will be Mickelson’s second Memphis appearance, and first since 2001.)
I’ve seen it for 20 years now -- St. Jude miracles every year. We’ve become firm believers in the power of that brand. It’s been amazing to watch it take shape. We can empathize with what Phil’s going through, and at the same time be very encouraged that the prognosis [for his wife] could be positive.
In terms of the PGA calendar, is the St. Jude Classic where it needs to be, a week before the U.S. Open?
This has historically been a prime date on the PGA Tour’s schedule. One anomaly that’s popped up recently is that U.S. Open qualifying is on the Monday of our tournament week. Out of 156 players in our field, 108 of them are engaged in a 36-hole Bataan Death March on Monday of tournament week, and 70 of those are qualifying outside of Memphis. The number of withdrawals early in the week is a source of concern. It takes its toll on the players.
Local fans will be seeing a talented group of international players: Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Jose Maria Olazabal. How much do they add to the tournament?
They add a mark of distinction. We’ve got five of the top 11 players in the world, and there aren’t too many tournaments that can say that. If you look at the top 10 now, it’s dominated by foreign players. It’s indicative of the state of golf in the world now, and we’re the beneficiaries.
There are also going to be some local favorites: Shaun Micheel, David Gossett, Loren Roberts, and big John Daly. Based on what you’ve seen over the years, who’s the most popular native son?
John Daly has international appeal, and is arguably one of the top three draws in golf. He’ll be making his 2009 U.S. debut at our event. But from a purely personal standpoint, having Loren Roberts set the alltime mark for playing in Memphis -- this will be his 25th year; Lou Graham played 24 -- he’s become such a supporter and friend. There’s no better friend of this tournament than Loren Roberts. This could very easily be his swan song. He’d be welcome back anytime he wants to play, but I think he’ll probably be focusing on the Champions Tour in his twilight years.
Who are the lesser-known golfers fans should keep an eye on this year?
Chad Campbell has had an injury, and is a great player. J.B. Holmes has been at the forefront of his game lately. Will MacKenzie married a local girl he met here a few years ago. He’s got game.
Your web site actually offers tips on how to politely get a player’s autograph. Is this kind of exchange ever problematic?
Autograph hounds are one of our bigger spectator concerns. We’ve had players get poked in the hand or arm with sharp pencils. We’ve tried to keep it organized, but it’s organized chaos, at best. I personally would love to see all the tournaments have more of an Augusta National outlook, where a person is politely asked to leave the grounds if he asks for an autograph past a certain point.
Since 1970, the Memphis tournament has raised and donated over $21 million to St. Jude. Are the players aware of the significance?
We’ve had firsthand knowledge of dozens of success stories, and we’ve received secondhand knowledge of thousands more. We’ve watched the cure rate [for certain cancers] go from less than 10 percent to greater than 90 percent. We’ve been blessed with optimism and hope.
This is your 10th year as tournament director. Does anything still catch you by surprise?
There are so many things, to this day, that occur and I find out only after the fact. Several years ago, I learned that we’d been giving out fruit to players at the turn [after the ninth hole]. Some volunteer group had taken it upon themselves to put grapes in a cup, slice oranges, and have bananas ready for players at the turn. When I asked how long we’d been doing it, they said three or four years!