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."