Memphis, TN– Long-time watchers of the FedEx St. Jude Classic know that sometime things occur that are so eerie and uncanny that they’re almost unexplainable. Through the years they’ve become known symbolically as “St. Jude moments.”
New champion Harris English may have unknowingly experienced one of them Sunday at TPC Southwind on the decisive hole that made him a champion for the first time on the PGA TOUR.
The former star at Chattanooga Baylor and later at the University of Georgia emerged from a nerve-wracking, adrenaline-pumping day of intense golf with a 1-under-par 69 for 268, and a two-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson and Knoxville’s Scott Stallings.
It was pretty much agreed by English and his rivals that his birdie on the par-four 17th hole – which got him to his final total of 12-under-par — was the moment that basically made him a winner, following a major mistake a few holes earlier by Stallings to relinquish the lead.
And the special significance for Harris involved a couple of digits: 1 and 7.
The official distance to the pin on his approach shot on No. 17 was 173 yards. His ball stopped 17 feet from the hole. He 1-putted for a two-shot lead, and held on for the win — in his 17th tournament of the year.
And he made the approach shot with a 7-iron.
“Weird,” English said, long after the awards ceremony.
Adding to the oddity was English’s explanation:
“I really wasn’t going for birdie there. I was trying to 2-putt and it went dead in the center and gave me a lot of momentum coming into 18. So the birdie on 17 was huge.”
It took just such a coincidence to make the difference on a beautiful day for golf when Mickelson, the World Golf Hall of Famer in search of his 42nd career victory, was lurking just a few strokes behind several leaders with very little experience as contenders.
In anticipation of the probability of an intense final round, English said after Saturday’s third round, “You like the heat being turned up. You like the competition.”
There was plenty of that – and more.
English, who was a co-leader after the first round and a solo leader by two shots after the second round, started the day at 11-under — one stroke behind rookie Shawn Stefani. During the next four hours, three players would swap the lead – Stefani, English and Stallings – and Ryan Palmer, Patrick Reed and Mickelson would challenge.
Stallings appeared set to take control, reaching 12-under with four birdies on the front nine. He was ahead by two shots until he plopped his approach to the par-four No. 15 in the water and made double-bogey.
Reed, who was 10-under through 13 holes, ran into a couple of three-putt issues, then bogeyed No. 17 after missing the fairway badly. Palmer birdied the par-five No. 16 to get to 9-under, but couldn’t get lower.
The ever-looming Mickelson birdied 14, 16 and 18, continuing to inspire his huge gallery. But when English combined a two-putt birdie on 16, with the clinching 17th, all he had to do was avoid disaster at the par-four 18th.
“It’s probably one of the best feelings when you play competitive golf to have those butterflies,” English said, recalling his thoughts on the tee box of the final hole. “It’s surreal. I’ve had it a couple of times in my life and I love it and I thrive on it.
But those earlier times weren’t on TOUR, and it didn’t mean he wasn’t nervous, even after his tee shot was perfect, his approach was safe, and he only had to tap in a short putt for par.
“I was glad I had a two-shot lead on that two-footer because my hands were shaking,” English said. “I couldn’t feel my hands. I was just hoping that the ball goes in the hole.”
Mickelson, who charged with a 67 and almost holed out from 151 yards for eagle on the final hole before settling for a tap-in birdie, said, “As it turns out, with Harris making birdie at 17, it probably would have been irrelevant anyway.”
For the week, English had rounds of 66-64-69-69.
Stallings closed with 68 for 270 to share second with Mickelson. Palmer had 67 for 271 and a solo fourth place. Reed followed his 64 on Saturday with 70 for 272 and a fifth-place finish.
English, 23, and in his sophomore season on TOUR, earned $1,026,000 and slipped into the Seersucker jacket that’s a tradition for the Memphis winner. He became only the seventh player in the 56-year-history of the tournament to win in his first appearance, and he became the ninth first-time winner on TOUR this year.
“I really felt at home this week,” English said. “Everywhere I went they were saying, ‘Go get ‘em, Harris. Go Dawgs. Go Baylor.’ It was awesome. I probably had 10 high school friends out there today.”
As a TOUR winner, one of the perks is a berth in next year’s Masters Tournament.
“Growing up in Georgia that was the main tournament that I always watched and went to when I was a kid,” he said. “The invitation to the Masters is going to be very special and special for my family because they’ve put a lot of hard work and a lot of time to get me where I am.
“I’ve had a lot of good people around me in South Georgia and Chattanooga and Athens and now Sea Island, Georgia. This is for them. I would not be where I am today without all the help and support from all my friends and family.”
Defending champion Dustin Johnson ended his reign with a 70 for 275 and tied for 10th.
Mickelson was delighted with his week and the reception at TPC Southwind.
“It was a great week . . . a really wonderful week,” ‘Lefty’ said. “The people here have been so nice and so supportive. I love what this tournament does for St. Jude Hospital. And as my game progressed each day, it felt better and better.
“I was just quite a bit behind on the back nine and I just kind of plowed alone.”
English said it was especially rewarding to win the FedEx-sponsored tournament.
“They’re the title sponsor here, but they do a lot more than just put on this tournament,” he said. “They put on the season-long race to win the FedEx Cup. It just goes to show how much that FedEx does for golf.”