Strong field assembled for St Jude Classic


MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Sweat dripped off Rory McIlroy’s face even as he stood in the shade behind the 18th green. This good Irish lad isn’t used to the muggy, hot South.

Call it the price of taking advantage of the PGA Tour’s last tuneup for the U.S. Open.

McIlroy is at the St. Jude Classic for the first time along with Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter looking for some competition before heading to Pebble Beach. The TPC Southwind course bears little resemblance to what golfers will face in California next week, down to the weather, but they will face a strong field starting Thursday with eight of the world’s top 20 on hand.

“It’s a tough test. It’s going to be tough all week, and it looks like it’s going to be pretty steamy,” McIlroy said Wednesday after finishing his pro-am practice round.

“It’s good preparation for the U.S. Open, tough conditions. You’ve got to hit the ball well. You’ve got to drive it in the fairway. You’ve got to put yourself in good position on the greens, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

Westwood comes in ranked No. 3 with Poulter sixth and McIlroy 10th. Also here are Robert Allenby, Padraig Harrington, Camilo Villegas, Zach Johnson and Retief Goosen – Nos. 13 through 17 in the world rankings.

Brian Gay is defending his title, trying to kick his own game into a new gear. David Toms, who won here in 2003 and 2004, also is back here after finishing tied for second a year ago. And Jordan Spieth, the 16-year-old Texas amateur who threatened at the Byron Nelson Championship last month, is here on a sponsor’s exemption offered up last November.

As the defending champ, Gay quickly thanked Smith & Nephew for stepping in as presenting sponsor this year for the PGA Tour’s third-longest running event dating back to 1958. Gay said he hopes it’s the start of a long relationship between the global medical technology business and this event.

If not, this could be the final tournament here at an event that has benefited the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital since 1970 and has plenty of history with winners like Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Nick Price and Greg Norman. Al Geiberger shot his amazing 59 in the second round en route to winning the event in 1977 at Colonial Country Club.

“I know dollars are tight out there, and the Tour really appreciates these guys coming in and helping out,” Gay said.

The scramble for sponsorship also is why this event will pay out $5.6 million with $1 million going to the winner.

The par-70, 7,239-yard course will force golfers to work hard this week. Plenty of recent rain has softened the fairways along with the Bermuda greens. Scattered thunderstorms could bring more rain Thursday and Friday for the first two rounds.

“Some guys like to play right before. Some guys like to rest. So it’s a good week for getting some rounds in competition before a major,” Gay said.

Gay won his third career title here a year ago, running away with a five-stroke victory that was the third-largest in the event’s history. He comes here this year having made 12 of 15 cuts with two Top 10s, including a tie for second at the Byron Nelson Championship last month when his putter got hot on the final day.

One lucky sign may have come for him on the drive from the Memphis airport to the course. His family had nearly arrived at the TPC Southwind when his wife noticed the diamond missing from her 10th anniversary wedding ring. The driver radioed a volunteer at the airport who went searching for the stone.

“Amazingly enough, 10 minutes later they called back and they found it on the curb, which was a miracle,” Gay said.

Spieth has been very busy since becoming the sixth-youngest player to make the cut on tour. He finished tied for 16th before heading back to school. He just finished exams and doesn’t know how he did. He also finished eighth at a junior tournament in Arizona before heading to Memphis, which has a tradition of giving a sponsor’s exemption to a top amateur each year.

He thinks he’ll be playing with much less adrenaline than at the Byron Nelson, where he had friends following him around.

“I’d like to get in there and just start going and just start playing my game,” Spieth said.

DIVOTS: John Daly also got a sponsor’s exemption to play at a course where he used to own a house. He still has a home nearby. … Grant Leaver, who is 6-foot-7, will be making his PGA Tour debut here. He went to Austin Peay and won the final spot in a qualifying playoff last weekend.