Denny McCarthy took out a Sharpie, signed his two golf balls and handed them to Lisa Redley and Mike Esposito. They were FedEx St. Jude Championship volunteers who walked with McCarthy the entire second round Friday.
Redley was the scoring marker, having switched with someone to be with this group because she knew the mother of Tennessee resident Scott Stallings. Esposito was the standard-bearer, updating McCarthy’s score for the galleries as he rocketed into TPC Southwind’s consciousness.
Neither had any idea who McCarthy was until about four hours earlier.
“Who knew I’d be with the leader,” Redley said with a laugh after McCarthy entered the weekend at 9-under, a lead that held briefly on another afternoon dominated largely by names only the most dedicated of golf fans had heard of before.
The first FedEx Cup playoff event here is set up to produce a wide open and compelling weekend of action, so long as you’ve got Google ready to search the names of the golfers involved.
For three years of World Golf Championships played in Memphis, the biggest names in the sport littered the leaderboard in Memphis. Brooks Koepka outdueled Rory McIlroy in 2019. Justin Thomas won in 2020. Bryson DeChambeau was in contention on the back nine last year, when Abraham Ancer won his first PGA Tour event.
But this is largely becoming the tournament of McCarthy and Sepp Straka and Brian Harman and J.J. Spaun, with a few notable exceptions.
It could be due to the odd decision by the PGA Tour to allow lift, clean and play conditions despite no rain in the forecast Friday, therefore making scoring ideal. It could be the absence of the LIV Golf series defections like Dustin Johnson, Koepka and DeChambeau. It could be the bigger field and the lack of European Tour golfers due to the tournament’s new designation as a playoff event.
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Whatever the case may be, given the threat facing the PGA Tour these days, it’s for the best if the trend changes. If someone the Tour is pushing as one of its new stars to combat this Saudi-funded competition makes a push during the third round, and moves into contention for Sunday.
In the three years since the PGA Tour switched its FedEx Cup playoffs format, the eventual winner of the FedEx Cup did not finish worse than a tie for 11th place in the former Northern Trust Open that the FedEx St. Jude Championship replaced on the schedule this year.
But of all years, this is the one the PGA Tour needs a recognizable name holding up its FedEx Cup trophy. To give tangible proof that its product is just fine without the figures who bolted for more money in LIV.
Tony Finau fits the bill. So does Will Zalatoris or Sam Burns or Max Homa.
There is, of course, a certain charm to watching a golfer get his first PGA Tour win, or perhaps his first moment in the spotlight. The stories can be endearing. It happened many times at the old FedEx St. Jude Classic, even if the lack of star power at those tournaments was exactly why FedEx pushed so hard to elevate the Memphis PGA Tour stop beyond its previous status.
Take Trey Mullinax, a Birmingam, Alabama, native in contention as Friday wore on. As he walked onto the practice green before his round, a group of men started shouting loudly for him and not Thomas, a fellow University of Alabama product standing beside him.
Mullinax looked over and waved, until he realized who he was waving at. It was his cousins goofing on him.
“He looked over like, ‘Those idiots again,’ ” Maddux Mullinax said laughing. “We’ve also been cheering for Brandon Wu in his group. He’s got no fans here and it’s sad.”
Rory McIlroy had plenty, though, despite another rocky round at TPC Southwind. As he walked off the 18th green, still with nine holes to play because he began his round on No. 10, a few fans yelled out from the grandstand behind the green, “We love you, Rory.”
The biggest star in golf and the face of the PGA Tour’s fight against LIV Golf then raised his putter in the air to acknowledge them, and thanked all the fans who had gathered on the rope line.
It was as if he already knew this would be his last time at No. 18 this year, a year in which the winner of this tournament might also need an introduction to most of the people watching.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: As underdogs thrive at FedEx St. Jude Championship, can a star emerge?