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Tiger, Tiger, Burning Elsewhere

What does golf's brightest star gain -- or lose -- by skipping events like the FedEx St. Jude Classic?

By Frank Murtaugh

Tiger Woods has already become the next Nicklaus. Only 26 years old and with eight major titles notched on his bag, Tiger should match the Golden Bear's record of 18 majors by the time he's 35. But you know what? Woods will never be the next Arnie. Not by a long shot. An unqualified phenom, and the closest thing to Michael Jordan the sports world can claim today, Woods will never be deserving of the prodigious title People's Champion until he actually goes to the people.

The FedEx St. Jude Classic opens play this Thursday at Southwind, the 45th consecutive year Memphis has hosted the PGA Tour and, supposedly, the very best golf has to offer. With every passing Year of the Tiger, though, professional golf is being transformed into a sport where the tournament calendar is divided into the "big leagues" (those events where Tiger plays) and "Triple-A" (those events Tiger chooses to skip). For a sport already top-heavy with a caste system dominated by the four majors (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship), the tour finds itself in a catch-22 with the ever-more-dominant Woods. While Tiger has everyone from soccer moms to the NASCAR set in front of their tubes on Sunday afternoons when he's tearing up another hapless field, those events he doesn't play become back-page news, two-minute updates on SportsCenter as you're brushing your teeth before bed.

Now in his sixth full year as a pro, Tiger has yet to play the FESJC. And it's a shame ... for Tiger. There's not a classier sports operation in town than the group headed by tournament director Phil Cannon. Year after year, Cannon's crew puts on a seamless week-long event that is every bit as major-league as any Grizzlies game. (Sure, it's hot. Bring some water and a hat and enjoy some world-class entertainment.) To the credit of Mid-South fans, Tiger's absence hasn't really dented attendance at Southwind. A record $1 million was donated to St. Jude after last year's event.

But imagine the scale of excitement if Elvis, er, Tiger were announced at the first tee on Thursday. Imagine if the Bluff City had hosted Mike Tyson in action . . . for four days. Considering this city's large black population -- not to mention a growing Asian base -- Tiger's impact would be that much greater, regardless of his performance on the course.

"I think Tiger prepares himself for four weeks a year," says Cannon, noting Woods' primary objective of winning the majors. "Tiger will play in our event when it's good for Tiger, and not before. He's not going to play for St. Jude ... he doesn't owe us anything." Cannon points out that the FESJC must always compete with the calendar, as players aim to peak for the likes of the U.S. Open (this year, two weeks before the FESJC) and the British Open (three weeks after the FESJC). And keep this in mind: There are no appearance fees allowed on the PGA Tour. "There's very little we can do to lure Tiger here," explains Cannon, "other than just putting on the best tournament we can and treating all the players as royally as possible."

The irony of Woods not playing a tournament is that it makes the event more competitive and usually a more compelling attraction for golf fans. (In baseball terms, remove the Yankees from the major leagues for a season and count the number of teams that circle October on their calendars.) In the most recent world golf rankings, the distance between the top-ranked Woods' point total (17.06) and the number-two player, Phil Mickelson, is 7.01. That's the same point differential between Mickelson and the number 31 player. Tiger has simply lapped the field. When he takes a week off, hope for the rest of the tour is, if not eternal, at least a four-day care package.

The saddest part in all this is the fact that the one person who stands to gain the most by playing events like the FESJC is Tiger Woods. It's unlikely that Woods cares much about being some sort of mythical "people's champion." It's more likely that he'll stick to his career plan, showing up for the majors and the "secondary major" PGA events, piling up the prize money and rankings points. It's not too early, though, to ask a certain life-plan question for this transcendent golfing talent. Of what value will Tiger's 18th major be (and 19th and 20th), if, in the process of winning it, he loses his golfing soul?

High Maintenance

The Redbirds' grounds crew keeps the diamond shining.

By James P. Hill

It's about 4 a.m. You're at home in bed, enjoying some REMs and dreaming. For Steve Horne, Memphis Redbirds director of field operations, this is one of his favorite times. "I have dreams," he says, "and when I wake up, I put field patterns on paper and then talk to the guys on the grounds crew. After the pattern is mowed on the field, we get satisfaction from fans' feedback."

The three-man full-time crew works long hours through the Mid-South summer heat and winter cold -- all year round. "In July and August, it's pretty hot," says grounds crew worker Ed Collins. Just as the Redbirds have a strategy to win baseball games, the grounds crew has its own system to work through the extremes of Mother Nature. "You gotta come out in 20-minute shifts and drink a lot of water," says Jeff Vincent, another crew member.

Despite an ever-changing and sometimes unpredictable schedule due to rain, the grounds-crew staff is passionate about the results of their collective work. "It's a lot harder than I thought. It all pays off when you see how good the field looks at the end of the day," says Vincent.

The normal routine for the crew includes pre-game field preparation -- mowing, applying fresh chalk lines -- and post-game care, such as raking and filling holes. Some people compare grounds-crew work to gardening, but that's like comparing redbirds to bluejays. "The difference between gardening and yard-building is I have about 25 guys who come out and attempt to tear everything up that I do," Horne says. "They're out there to play a game. That's their business. It's our job to make it where they're as comfortable as possible doing that."

Most of the grounds work at AutoZone Park is unglamorous, to say the least. There are no fans in the stands, no hot dogs, no apple pies, and no excitement in the air. This ballpark scene is all about preparing the field of dreams.

Redbirds catcher Alex Andreopoulos says he admires and respects the job the grounds crew does. Andreopoulos also understands how hard work behind the scenes can often be overlooked. "The fans don't see what they're doing before the game, what they do after the game especially, and then in between innings," says Andreopoulos. "You don't see the guys doing their job, but it makes it easier for us to go out there and play."

The grounds work is not just for show. Maintaining a quality playing surface can help prevent injuries. The coaching staff and players can tell a good field from a bad one. "Say the field is too soft," says Redbirds manager Gaylen Pitts. "You're gonna have guys slipping and sliding out there. They'll have a tendency to pull a muscle or whatever. If it's too hard when they slide, they can hurt themselves. Or if the grass has some bad spots, if it's loose, they can catch their spikes. A good playing surface is worth its weight in gold."

Or diamonds.

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