(CBS Miami/CBS Local) — The WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational will tee off just days after the season’s fourth major. And still the PGA Tour’s best are showing up. A chartered plane certainly helps.
About half the field flew Sunday night from Northern Ireland, site of this year’s British Open, to Memphis, Tennessee, home of TPC Southwind, current host and host of the previous event since 1989.
Some things have changed. The name, for one. Now a WGC event, what was once called the FedEx St. Jude Classic finds itself in a new spot on the calendar as well. With this year’s Tour schedule changes, it’s no longer wedged between the Memorial and U.S. Open in early June. Now it’s slipped to late July, where it comfortably precedes the start of the FedExCup Playoffs.
A $10,250,000 purse is on the line, along with the usual array of WGC FedExCup points. With the Northern Trust set to open the FedExCup Playoffs in a couple weeks, points start to matter for golfers around the 125-player cut-line.
A post-major tournament tends to be a quieter affair, as players dial back the intensity. Fewer big names commit to playing and even fewer show up. True to form, Tiger Woods has pulled out of the WGC-St. Jude, citing a need to take a couple weeks off after missing the cut at Royal Portrush.
But the vibe around TPC Southwind is upbeat. As CBS Sports’ on-course reporter Frank Nobilo noticed “…Memphis has stepped up in class and gotten a World Championship and the fans are responding.”
The field is also very strong. In Nobilo’s recollection, “they’ve never had a field of this stature.”
Eight of the world’s top 10 players will be on hand, including top-ranked Brooks Koepka and 2018 FedEx St. Jude Classic winner Dustin Johnson, who also won in 2012. The two are “…no strangers to Memphis,” as Nobilo summed up. Justin Thomas, who won the farewell edition of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational and is considered the defending champion, will play. Even Rory McIlroy, despite a disappointing homecoming at the British Open in Northern Ireland, made the trip.
Those are just some of the favorites. Even the dark-horses are real threats to contend. “There are some names,” Nobilo noted, “that look like outsiders, but need to be considered and have a good chance to win. Billy Horschel, the first FedEx Cup champion. Tony Finau is another. It’s about time he backed up his form and his talent.”
All the talent is understandable, given the cause and the quality of the course. TPC Southwind, measuring 7,237 yards and playing at par-70, is a good test of golf. It routinely ranks among the top 15 hardest courses on the PGA Tour.
Many of the holes dogleg from left to right, rewarding a firm command of the fade off the tee. The greens are firm and quick, with subtle breaks that require putting accuracy. And then there’s the wind, which can create some problems, and the Memphis summer temperatures, which, mercifully, won’t climb past the high 80s.
As Nobilo sees it, “you can just about make a case for everybody in the field.” So given all the talent, who are the favorites at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational?
Dustin Johnson (10/1):
Johnson, ranked second in the world, won the FedEx St. Jude Classic last year at TPC Southwind, and also in 2012. He logged two top-10 finishes in the years in between. That’s all to say that he knows this course. Johnson hasn’t really contended since his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship in May. This week may see a return to form.
Rory McIlroy (10/1):
McIlroy endured a disappointing homecoming at the British Open, missing the cut after a horrid opening-round 79. It was an aberration for the world’s third-ranked player, who followed it up with a strong second-round 65 and has been among the sport’s best all year. That includes 11 top-10 finishes. McIlroy hasn’t played TPC Southwind since 2012, when he turned in a T7. In Nobilo’s view, “he has to do some explaining [to do] for his performance last week, but he normally does a good job of bouncing back…”
Brooks Koepka (12/1):
Koepka, unlike the other favorites this week, actually showed up for the British Open, because that’s what he does for majors. The top-ranked player in the world finished in the top five for every major this year. Perhaps more importantly, Koepka has thrived at TPC Southwind, with a T3 in 2015 and a T2 in 2016.