MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — John Daly is trying to restart his PGA Tour career after a six-month suspension. Phil Mickelson hopes to tune up for the U.S. Open and gain a piece of normalcy since his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.
There’s a strong field that includes Henrik Stenson in his first appearance since winning the Players Championship, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Retief Goosen and Camilo Villegas. Justin Leonard’s back defending his title and eager to win his third since 2005 at the TPC at Southwind.
More than enough story lines for any PGA Tour event. The timing couldn’t be better at the St. Jude Classic with Thursday’s opening round finally turning attention to golf for a tournament that erased its title sponsor in March and whose purse was trimmed late last week.
“So here I am,” Mickelson said with a voice that revealed the emotions he has been dealing with over the three weeks since announcing his wife Amy’s diagnosis.
This is only Mickelson’s second trip to this tournament, and he missed the cut here in 2001. That was before a course redesign that tightened par by a stroke to 70.
Leonard had to go to the second hole of a playoff to win a year ago after tying for a 4-under par 276 that was this course’s highest winning score since the event moved to the TPC at Southwind in 1989. Only 12 finished under par in 2008, and two holes ranked among the toughest 37 on tour for the year. The par-4 12th, with its lake down the right fairway, was eighth stingiest.
Mickelson acknowledged he didn’t know how this course will help him prepare for Bethpage Black in New York next week.
“But for me, I just need to get back to competition. I missed a couple of events. I haven’t played in five or six weeks. I need to get a little bit in a competitive frame of mind if I expect to have any chance next week,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson comes in as the world’s No. 2 ranked player, a two-time winner already on tour this year. But his last event was the Players Championship where he tied for 55th. Then came the diagnosis. He scrapped his schedule until tests on his 38-year-old wife pushed surgery to the first week of July.
A year of treatment will follow. So Mickelson decided to play in Memphis as preparation for the U.S. Open in a state where he hasn’t finished worse than fourth and an event where he has finished second four times. His family will stay away from New York before a vacation, then the surgery.
Mickelson got a practice round in at Bethpage Black on Tuesday. He feels fortunate to be able to play in the U.S. Open, a tournament he is on a quest to win.
“I’m looking forward to have a four- or five-hour mental break where I force myself to focus on something else. I’m looking forward to that,” Mickelson said.
Daly is back thanks to a sponsor’s exemption and looking trimmer than in his last PGA start thanks to lap-band surgery that has helped him lose 61 pounds. He has added a sponsor, is working on his game and seems to understand that he’s running out of time to see how good he might be with the Champions Tour looming in the 43-year-old’s future.
“Golf is my life. I mean it’s the only thing I’ve been able to do to provide for my family, for myself. I just want to be more serious about it. I want to prepare myself more. I don’t think it’s a last chance. I think I’m giving myself a chance to be the best player that I can be, and to me, that’s all that matters,” he said.
Memphis has been home to Daly for about 20 years, so he remains a big draw here. His fellow golfers are happy to have him back and eager to see what he can do.
Tim Herron, one of the first people who called Daly after news of his suspension, is paired with him. Herron also talked briefly with Daly on the putting green here Tuesday.
“People still love him, fans especially. People are still talking about John, which is good. So he’s still good for the Tour, good for the community,” Herron said.