A lot of the big-name players on the PGA Tour take a pass on the
FedEx St. Jude Classic because they can't stand the heat and
humidity that in summer are as much a part of Memphis as are the
tourists at Graceland. The no-shows figure it's better to take
the week off than deal with an outdoor sauna like the TPC at
Southwind. Who needs the hassle, especially with the season's
third major, the British Open, right around the corner? Last
week their logic was hard to fault. Besides the oppressive heat,
the tournament was suspended five times in three days because of
thunderstorms, which meant that rounds beginning one day often
didn't end until the next.
The final storm, though, the one that erupted on Sunday evening,
had nothing to do with the weather, although it also caused a
suspension--of belief. There was Greg Norman, the Shark, 13
shots under par for the tournament and two behind Dudley Hart,
the leader in the clubhouse, with only three holes to play.
Norman dramatically birdied them all, ending a 16-month,
22-tournament drought on Tour with his first win since last
year's Doral-Ryder Open. When his 30-foot putt on the final hole
was still 10 feet from the cup, Norman was so sure it would drop
that he lifted his right arm in triumph. The crowd roared, and
at that moment poor Hart, who was hitting balls on the nearby
practice range in anticipation of a playoff, stopped, shrugged,
handed the club he had been swinging to his caddie and headed
for the locker room. He could have been walking down Lonely
Street on the way to Heartbreak Hotel. "When I went to the TV
tower after my round," Hart said, "they asked me who I thought
might have a chance of catching me. I said, 'You've got to watch
the Shark.' So at least I look smart, for a change. If you're
going to lose a tournament, it might as well be to him. That was
a hell of a finish."
Indeed it was, but cooler heads wondered if jumping on the
Norman bandwagon at this time wouldn't be a leap of faith. Yes,
Norman played well--he was 16 under par on rounds of 68, 65, 69
and 66--but the scores came on one of the most player-friendly
courses on Tour. Last year John Cook whipped around Southwind in
26 under, only a shot off Mike Souchak's record for 72 holes.
What's more, last week's field included only one other player,
Nick Price, who was among the top 20 on the money list.
Although Norman wouldn't say it, maybe the weakness of the
course and the field were precisely the reasons he decided to
play in Memphis for the first time in 12 years. He needed a win,
even if it came in a soft event. Whatever. The tournament needed
him even more.
The field had been watered down--no Ernie Els, Tom Lehman or
Tiger Woods to contend with this week, men--even before the
storms. The absence of many of the upper-tier players opened
plenty of spots for the wannabes, has-beens and never-weres,
especially the ones from the mid-South, who like Memphis because
it's the closest the Tour comes to their homes. "This area of
the country is starving for professional golf," says Fuzzy
Zoeller, who, along with Hubert Green, consulted on the design
of Southwind and lives across the Ohio River from Louisville in
New Albany, Ind. "The two most successful PGA Championships in
recent years were in St. Louis and Louisville, yet the Tour
continues to concentrate mainly on the East Coast and Florida."
Zoeller usually cuts up when the Tour comes to Southwind, but
this year the tournament's top kidder was Charlie Rymer, a
29-year-old pro hoping to play well enough to escape the Nike
tour--or worse, a job in a pro shop. A tournament-low 63 in the
second round lifted Rymer to 27th place and a check for $9,775.
A 6'4" native of Marietta, Ga., Rymer was the perfect poster boy
for this year's field. He's so down-home that after making a
third consecutive birdie putt during the 63, he said, "I'm
fixin' to start speakin' in tongues."
While Rymer was cracking wise, Robert Damron was as serious as
he could be about getting his first Tour win. A 24-year-old
rookie who earned his Tour card by finishing 16th in last fall's
Q school, Damron came to Memphis locked in a battle with Stewart
Cink for rookie of the year. Like so many of the other players,
Damron has roots close to Memphis. He was born in Pikeville,
Ky., where his parents, Bill and Billie, still live when not at
their home in Orlando alongside the 10th fairway at Arnold
Palmer's Bay Hill Club.
Bill Damron bought the Bay Hill home in the early 1970s with
some of the fortune he amassed in coal during the energy crisis,
and he soon became close friends with Palmer. As a youngster
learning the game, Robert also got to know Palmer and, through
him, players such as Scott Hoch and Norman, who also had homes
in the area. "Mr. Palmer has always been a hero of mine," says
Damron. "He has helped me with my game--not so much hitting the
shots, but how to handle the mental part of it."
Mr. Palmer undoubtedly is pleased by the way young Robert has
performed this year. Damron's tie for third last week was his
fourth top-10 finish of the year, and the $87,000 paycheck
boosted his earnings to $428,758--31st on the money list and
more than $200,000 ahead of Cink, who came in 16th and made
$21,750. Cink is 61st in money. Nevertheless, Damron also
checked into Heartbreak Hotel on Sunday. Tied for the lead after
the first round and the sole leader through three, he faltered
on the final 18. Playing in Norman's group, he double-bogeyed
the 8th hole and never got back into serious contention,
eventually finishing two shots behind Norman and tied for third
with Craig Parry.
"He's young, he's strong, and he's got a lot of desire," says
Palmer, describing Damron. "I think he can be whatever that
desire pushes him to be. Everybody's got a lot of advice, but
I've told him, 'Don't listen to any of it.' I've told him to
stay within himself and play the game the way he knows how.
Forget the gurus and all that other stuff."
Which, come to think of it, would also have been good advice for
Norman, who has been the most analyzed player in the game--other
than Woods--since his cataclysmic crash in the final round of
the 1996 Masters. Last week, after his 65 in the second round,
Norman was asked by a local writer if he's questioned about that
Masters at every tournament. "You've just increased the streak,"
said Norman, smiling coldly. When the writer pressed him, asking
if he was still the player he was before the Masters, Norman
said, "I'm a better player...the same player...it hasn't
affected me." One could almost hear his teeth grinding.
Norman couldn't deny that this year he has missed the cut in
back-to-back majors--the Masters and the U.S. Open--for the
first time in his career. Suddenly the man who had been ranked
No. 1 in the world for 96 consecutive weeks had slipped to No. 3
and looked vulnerable, both mentally and physically. On the
Wednesday before the tournament, Norman pulled a rib muscle and
bailed out of the pro-am so he could be treated in the players'
fitness trailer. Tournament officials were scared silly that he
would be forced to withdraw, thus depriving them of their No. 1
gate attraction. Norman was back to normal on Thursday, but only
physically. On his way from the 9th green to the 10th tee, he
became agitated when he saw a photographer who had irritated him
on the practice tee the previous day. Walking up to the
photographer, Norman said angrily, "Why don't you just leave me
alone?" It didn't seem to matter that at the moment the
photographer wasn't even shooting him. Maybe it was the heat.
Throughout the tournament the Memphis fans, who know a superstar
when they see one, gave Norman the full Elvis treatment. Even
Price failed to attract galleries anywhere near as large as
Norman's. Finally, just as the fans were about to give up on
him, Norman delivered a stormin' finish. At the 16th, a 528-yard
par-5, Norman hit his second shot, a three-wood, into a bunker
in front of the green. He blasted out to six inches and tapped
in for birdie. On the next hole, a 464-yard par-4, he left his
three-wood drive 209 yards short of the hole and then hit a
perfect four-iron to four feet. "That four-iron was the shot of
the tournament," Norman said. "It covered the flag all the way,
looked like a frozen rope. You visualize these shots, and then
when it comes up like that, it makes you feel great."
A playoff seemed likely considering that the 18th, a 437-yard
par-4, was the fifth-toughest hole on the course. Once again
Norman hit a three-wood off the tee, this time leaving himself
190 yards to the middle of the green. He selected a six-iron and
picked out a target. "I wasn't trying to go for the flag," he
said. "I wanted to put it in the middle of the green and give
myself a chance to win. I aimed for the F in the FedEx sign
behind the green, but hit it to the first E. Then the ball felt
great coming off the putter, and it went right over the pitch
mark I had spotted, with the right speed."
Before being escorted out of the clubhouse and through a mob of
fans to a black sport utility vehicle--"Ladies and gentlemen,
the Shark has left the building!"--Norman said winning in
Memphis was just what the doctor ordered heading into the
British Open at Royal Troon. "Putting it all together and
winning, that's what golf is all about," said Norman, whose
victory moved him back to No. 1 in the World Ranking ahead of
Els and Woods. "Winning is a tonic, just the medicine you need.
Now, when things aren't going well for me, I'll throw my mind
back to Memphis. I'll think about the shots I made. It gives you
Confidence, whether he cares to admit it or not, is exactly what
Stormin' Norman had hoped to find in Memphis.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND [Greg Norman waving]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND With some coaching from Palmer, Damron is making a strong pitch for Tour rookie of the year. [Crowd watching Robert Damron playing golf]