MEMPHIS, Tenn.-The St. Jude Classic needed a boost. A ray of hope. Some good news. Something in the wake of the ongoing Stanford Financial scandal that cost this tournament its sponsor and has put its future at risk.
John Daly showed up. That helped a little but Friday, he finished on the cutline at 140, even par. Phil Mickelson came, shot an opening 68. That was nice. Friday, a local favorite and a sentimental underdog played his way into the mix. That was long-time Memphis resident Loren Roberts, the only player in the field who is older than the tournament. Roberts is 53. The St. Jude Classic is 51. Is there a word stronger than underdog?
When Roberts posted his second straight 67 here Friday morning at the TPC Southwind, he played his way onto the first page of the leaderboard. Could a 53-year-old really win a tour event? Well, why not?
“I think this course is just tough enough and yet it’s just short enough that somebody like me can possibly have a chance here,” said Roberts.
This tournament is close to his heart. Roberts used to be on the tournament’s board of directors. He has played here many times and he is a big supporter of the community. That’s why he used a one-time exemption for being on the PGA Tour’s career top 50 money-list to be exempt on the PGA Tour this year, even though he plans to play probably only two tournaments — here and the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, where he is a former champion.
“After what happened with Stanford, we needed to rally around this tournament,” Roberts said. “Everyone knows what is going on around this country financially. I would really hate to see this tournament go away. Obviously, we have the Grizzlies here. Outside of that, this tournament is probably the biggest sporting event in town unless we get an NCAA basketball regional or something.”
Roberts missed last year’s event because he would’ve needed a sponsor’s exemption to get in the field and he didn’t want to take one away from a young player, maybe a young Memphis player. He decided to play this year with his top-50 exemption, since this was probably his last chance to use it. There’s a good chance he will fall out of the top 50 on the career money list by next year.
Before you ask, no, he is not tempted to play more on the PGA Tour this year even though he used an exemption. “These guys hit it so far out here now, I’m just not competitive on a lot of the courses,” said Roberts, who was known for his putting prowess — the Boss of the Moss — not for his power. “I’m not going to work my butt off to finish 110th on the money list. It was time to move over and play golf for fun. Look at Bernhard Langer, he almost won Colonial two years ago. We were hoping he would, so he’d stay out on the PGA Tour. Now that he’s on the Champions tour, he’s threatening to win every week. That’s great for him.
“I still want to compete as hard as ever, then I want to have a beer and dinner afterward. When you’re 48 or 50 and playing this tour and everybody else is 20-something or 30-something, it’s like they’re your sons. You don’t have a lot in common.”
That doesn’t mean he can’t still beat the young guns on the right course where his experience can pay off. Like TPC Southwind. No matter what happens on the weekend, though, Roberts has already given this event a much needed shot of interest.
“Something happened to my body,” he joked after his round. In other words, something good that allowed him to play well.
“Maybe it’s the 90-degree heat and humidity,” he said. “I felt like I turned the clock back a little today. Who knows, maybe I’ll redefine the rest of my year on the Champions tour.”
And maybe he’ll help save an event that’s two years younger than he is.