Johnson, Thomas defending champs as WGC moves to Memphis

Sports
Rory McIlroy, Philip Eriksson, Henrik Stenson

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, right, and Philip Eriksson, of Sweden, second from right, laugh as they watch Henrik Stenson, of Sweden, get ready to hit in a left-handed driving contest on the 13th hole during a practice round for the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Dustin Johnson made it clear. Even though he won the last time the PGA Tour visited TPC Southwind, he’s not the defending champion.

That would be Justin Thomas, who is looking to become the first repeat winner at this World Golf Championships event since Tiger Woods took three straight from 2005 and 2007.

Clear huh?

This WGC switched sponsors, courses and even states, leaving Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, to the home course of the sponsor of the annual FedExCup. The new FedEx St. Jude Invitational starts Thursday at the course that hosted the St. Jude Classic from 1989 to last year. Johnson won the then-FedEx St. Jude Classic a year ago to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the world, holing out for eagle from 170 yards on the final hole for a six-stroke victory.

Johnson is the only player in the exclusive field of 63 who won on the course where that amazing shot for eagle is commemorated by a plaque. He also won here in 2012, a nice advantage in an event featuring 25 players making their debuts on the par-70 course with water on 11 of the 18 holes.

“It’s always nice to come back to a place where you’ve won, or I’ve won a couple times,” Johnson said Wednesday after finishing up a practice round without taking a look at the plaque. “It’s always nice to come back here. I’ve got good vibes here, and I like the golf course. I feel like I know the golf course very well, I know what you have to do to succeed here. So it’s a place where I enjoy coming back to and I look forward to this week.”

Thomas, who won his ninth tour title and first World Golf Championships event last year in Ohio , hasn’t talked with Johnson about who is the defending champ. They will be playing together with Paul Casey, and Thomas says he’d probably give the nod to Johnson thanks to his familiarity with TPC Southwind.

“I’ve never played here in my life, and he won the tournament here last year,” Thomas said. “So I don’t think so it’s going to have any impact on who plays better this week, but he can have it if he wants it. I’m not losing any sleep over it.”

The best field is best ever in Memphis despite the town hosting a PGA Tour event since 1958, even if local fans were disappointed when Tiger Woods announced last week he needed rest after missing the cut at the British Open. Even with Shane Lowry withdrawing in the wake of winning the British Open, 46 of the world’s top 50 are here, led by the likes of Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.

McIlroy missed the cut last week by one stroke. He spent the past three days helping his wife unpack boxes in their new home, and he’s back here for the first time since tying for seventh in 2012.

“It’s a bit of a contrast considering the type of golf we’ve had to play the last two weeks back over in the U.K. Green speeds are a little different,” McIlroy said. “Hit my first couple of putts there about 10 feet past.”

Koepka is among those very familiar with the 7,244-yard course that had served as a final tuneup for the U.S. Open before the tour changed up the schedule and needed a new host for the fourth World Golf Championships event. He has a pair of top six finishes here, and he arrived in Memphis as the new leader in the FedExCup standings for the first time in his career with only two weeks left until the playoffs begin.

“I love this place,” Koepka said. “This place has always been good to me.”

Rain on Sunday and Monday helped soften up the course that rewards those striking the ball well. Miss the fairways and over par is easily in reach.

The biggest challenge for those who played at Royal Portrush in Ireland last week may be jet lag. Thomas said he woke up at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, while Justin Rose, the 2018 FedExCup champ, arrived Tuesday night for his first event in Memphis. He’s playing with Matt Kuchar, his roomie this week at a condo, and Jordan Spieth to ease his transition. Rose has been someone who preferred to practice rather than compete before a U.S. Open.

“So to have the opportunity to finally be here in Memphis is something I’ve been looking forward to,” Rose said.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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