Former UGA golfer English ready to defend title in Memphis

MEMPHIS, TENN. | There’s a certain level of pressure on former Georgia golfer Harris English to defend the first PGA Tour title he ever won. It’s a good thing he has a lot of friends in town considering the competition at the St. Jude Classic.

Former UGA golfer English ready to defend title in Memphis
Teresa M. Walker

As the final tuneup for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, this tournament has what might be its strongest field since leaving Colonial Country Club after 1988 for the TPC Southwind course.

Three-time winner Patrick Reed is just one of 13 here to win a title in recent months. Matt Kuchar withdrew Tuesday after a late commitment, but Phil Mickelson is among seven ranked in the world’s top 30 honing their games for Pinehurst. David Toms and Justin Leonard, both two-time champs at this event, are among the nine former St. Jude winners here too.

“It’s amazing how many really good players are playing this week,” English said Wednesday. “I don’t know if they really like the golf course here, it’s a good warm-up for the U.S. Open or maybe it’s a combination of things. But it’s awesome to see because I want to play in a tournament where the best people are playing, and that’s obviously what we have this week.”

English followed up his St. Jude victory by winning the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, and he has six top 10 finishes in 18 events. But he has missed the cut in three of his past five events, so he also wants to tune up for his first U.S. Open. English, who helped Baylor School in Chattanooga win four Tennessee high school golf titles before college at Georgia, arrived here early to visit with friends, relax and prepare.

He tees off Thursday morning with Mickelson and Scott Stallings, who finished tied for second here last year.

“I’m very excited to be back here and looking forward to the week,” English said.

This tournament, sponsored by FedEx, does offer up 500 FedEx Cup points to the winner. The rough is a little sparse after a rough winter, but par is a good score on this 7,239-yard course to hone the competitive edge. A soggy spring has the fairways a little soft, but the Champion Bermuda greens are in perfect shape and similar enough to Pinehurst to provide a good test.

Add in Memphis’ usual heat and humidity and Lee Westwood believes this is good preparation for Pinehurst. Westwood hasn’t played at Pinehurst since the last U.S. Open there, but he won on this course in 2010.

“I feel like the areas around the greens, which are critical next week at Pinehurst are very similar here,” Westwood said. “You have the low-cut Bermuda grass with the grain cut into you. Delicate tough little chip shots we have to work on. It’s a wonderful place to get ready for next week. I’m glad I’m here.”

Mickelson tied for 49th at Memorial last week following a visit from FBI agents and lingering questions about an insider-trading investigation. He did spend two days at Pinehurst recently working on his touch around the greens there, which he hopes will translate in Memphis where a delicate hand is crucial on chip shots.

Winless since the British Open, Mickelson said he needs to finish his rounds.

“I don’t feel like the parts are off, but the score’s been off,” Mickelson said. “And so I’ve got to stay sharp, salvage shots, fight through each round and see if I can finish strong. Last week I finished a lot of the rounds really poorly, and I need to get momentum for next week. And the best way to do that is to shoot low numbers.”

Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ, said everyone always tries to work their scheduling around the majors in an attempt to peak at the right time. He is coming off a break, though he came to Tennessee after playing 24 holes at Pinehurst earlier this week.

“I’d love to win here at Memphis this week …,” McDowell said. “A lot of good pluses here at this golf course, and it’s tough as well. It’s a U.S. Open-type mindset as well. Par’s a good score here.”

Divots: Scottie Scheffler, the 17-year-old amateur, is making his second tour start on a sponsor’s exemption. Scheffler finished tied for second in his debut last month at the Byron Nelson Championship. … NASCAR driver Danica Patrick turned out to cheer on boyfriend and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Wednesday’s pro-am.

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