Opinion: A lot has changed for 2022 FedEx St. Jude Championship, but its spirit endures

Jack Sammons posed for the photo inside the corporate FedEx cabana overlooking the 18th green at TPC Southwind, the sparkling FedEx Cup trophy encased next to him to start the 65th year of the annual pro golf tournament in Memphis, Tennessee.

The image was so much more than a picture given the circumstances, given the name of the event is different again, and the date of the event is different again, and the tournament director is different again, and even the stability of the PGA Tour is different than it was just a year ago.

There was Sammons, the former city council member with all that Southern charm, who helped rescue this tournament when it almost went under 13 years ago, standing with the symbol for all his work. He was armed with a joke, of course, about the many versions of this event he has now overseen as General Chairman.

“I’ve had more logos on this shirt than Elizabeth Taylor had husbands,” he cracked. “But I got 125 of the best golfers in the world coming here. Back in the day … they’d say, ‘It’s hot there. There’s mosquitoes.’ They had all sorts of reason not to come.”

Welcome back to PGA Tour golf in Memphis. It’s like never before, and yet this tournament’s enduring spirit feels the same as ever, despite being on its third name, third date and third format over the past five years.

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This week, the FedEx Cup playoffs and the top 125 golfers in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings will descend on TPC Southwind for the first FedEx St. Jude Championship. At $15 million, the prize money soars past last year’s $10.5 million purse at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. Most of the world’s best, many who never deigned come to Memphis before it became a WGC event three years ago, are back.

But some big fan favorites aren’t. Phil Mickelson. Dustin Johnson. Brooks Koepka. Bryson DeChambeau. Even the golfer who won last year’s Memphis tournament, Abraham Ancer. They’re all playing on the LIV Golf Series that is threatening the future of the PGA Tour, and the controversy driving the conversation in golf in recent months will come barreling into the Mid-South.

Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford, three LIV defections who still rank among the top 125 in FedEx Cup points, have actually filed a federal lawsuit requesting a temporary injunction in order to play in Memphis this week.

All these factors contributed to what tournament executive director Joe Tomek described as “fatigue and uncertainty and questions over whether it’s good or bad.”

“It doesn’t seem like it has an identity,” he conceded, “But I promise you, this has been the goal.”

Tomek, 30, is the rare director of this tournament to not hail from Memphis, to not have grown up witnessing the place it holds in the city’s sports tradition. The Cleveland, Ohio, native moved here in December after working for the PGA Tour in Florida, and then saw several key staff members leave soon after former executive director Darrell Smith moved on.

One of the lesser-discussed aspects of the PGA Tour upgrading the Memphis stop from a regular tournament to a WGC event in 2019 – and a playoff event moving forward – is that the Tour now oversees tournament operations here.

It’s a reminder that no person or name or format can really define what this city’s golf tournament represents, how it serves St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and why FedEx is so important to the fortunes of Memphis.

“I’ll always miss the tournament. It’s in my blood,” said Smith, who spent all but one year of his adult life working for the event in some capacity.

“It’ll still have that unique community feel to it that people have become accustomed to,” Tomek emphasized.

Because how could it not at this point? This tournament has been through so much and yet that has never changed. Not as long as people like Charles Speed are still there.

This will be his 63rd year working as a tournament volunteer, and there has never been a better year to celebrate his status as the longest-tenured volunteer. The 82-year-old broke his hip this year, developed knee problems, and had to use a walker for a time. Tournament officials feared he might not be at TPC Southwind this week.

But this tradition began when Speed’s father, a member of the old Colonial Country Club that first played host to the Memphis Open, needed help working the hand-operated scoreboard. He has filled just about every job imaginable since then.

His streak made it through name changes and course changes and sponsor changes and logo changes. A bum hip isn’t enough to keep him away.

“I’ve just lived here all my life and show up at each one,” Speed said. “Wherever they need me, I guess.”

Words this tournament can always live by.