John Williams was hitting flop shots in his backyard earlier this week, right underneath an #AISENSTRONG banner that’s hanging from his second-floor balcony.
Had he known who his next door neighbor is at the moment, he might not have chosen to fool around with his pitching wedge. But then Williams turned around.
Standing there at the grill was Rory McIlroy watching Williams do what McIlroy does better than just about everyone in the world. Soon enough, Williams and McIlroy began talking from across the fence line and McIlroy met his kids. Before long, Sergio Garcia — who’s sharing a house with McIlroy in the neighborhood surrounding TPC Southwind — came over to pet Williams’ dog.
“I tried to keep the conversation away from golf,” Williams said with a laugh. “I tried to play it cool.”
The vibe at the 2020 World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational is unlike any sporting event to come to Memphis. Take Friday’s sleepy second round as an example.
It began at 7 a.m., and ended with Brendon Todd atop the leaderboard at 11 under, eating lunch at a picnic table with his wife and caddie where tens of thousands of Memphians would usually be congregating.
The constant murmur and spontaneous bursts of noise from the gallery were replaced by chirping birds and the buzz of cicadas like it was just another Friday morning. But the hackers and club members who would be figuring their way around the course have been replaced by Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler and the rest of the world’s best golfers walking by.
Only those who live within the gated community around the course, and perhaps a guest or two, are able to catch a glimpse. It’s both fascinating and melancholy. A once-in-a-lifetime experience that this columnist never wants to experience again.
Near the 10th hole, a man walked his dog as Thomas attempted a birdie putt. Along the fairway at No. 12, a man who finished his morning jog sat in an Adirondack chair cooling off as Koepka hit an approach shot. On No. 1, there’s a two-story patio that’s featured a dozen or so onlookers each day cheering golfers as they walk off the tee.
Other than the occasional golf clap, it’s about the only traditional sounds you’ll hear out here.
Ben Williams has been camped out with a folding chair next to the tee box at No. 11 — TPC Southwind’s signature Island hole — since Tuesday.
By Thursday, a handful of neighbors were out there with him. His 8-year-old son, Judah, and his father, Jimmy, joined him for the second round Friday. Three generations of Memphis golf fans watched a historic tournament that’s making history for the wrong reasons this year.
“I was thinking about telling Harry Diamond (McIlroy’s caddie) that it was a two-club wind Thursday. I tried to send mind signals but couldn’t do it (and) Rory hit into water,” Ben Williams said, and almost as soon as he said it Collin Morikawa and Patrick Reed did the same.
“It’s fun to see them miscalculate like me.”
None of this is what it should be, of course. There should be throngs of people walking around. They should be able to follow their favorite golfers from hole to hole. The mansions that border this course should be hosting parties.
Like longtime friends and Southwind neighbors Richard Lusk, Don Lasseter and Jerry Treece. They each were seated in folding chairs by the green at the par-3 14th Thursday, using the backyard of Carol McCourt. A year ago, she had at least 75 people during the final round. This year, there isn’t even a merchandise tent.
“It’s going to be the lost year,” McCourt lamented, and that sentiment applies to a lot more than golf these days.
“We’d be fighting the spectators for this shade,” said longtime volunteer Paul Allen, seated underneath a tree on No. 17.
“You don’t want to show Memphis in a bad light and have all the porches crowded,” added Nancy Mills, watching with another neighbor from the edge of her backyard on the 18th green.
But there is some good to come out of all this.
Nobody would be able to see the #AISENSTRONG banner, or the “We Love the Kids of St. Jude” sign hanging from the balcony of John Williams’ house in any other year. He wouldn’t be able to sit on his patio with a laptop open watching the world’s best golfers pass by his backyard. There would be a giant grandstand blocking the view on the back nine.
But with a pandemic hanging over this year’s tournament, most of the structures normally built out across the course were dismantled weeks ago, once the PGA Tour announced no fans would be allowed on site.
This presented Williams with an opportunity to channel the spirit this tournament usually showcases.
Aisen Cannon is the nephew of a longtime family friend. He was recently admitted to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with pediatric cancer and began chemotherapy, according to Williams.
“As a parent, I just can’t imagine,” he said Friday.
So he wanted to do more than just light a candle in church. He wanted Aisen to see his name on television.
By now, McIlroy and Garcia have seen the #AISENSTRONG sign. So have Thomas and Fowler and Jordan Spieth, who are staying a few houses down. So has defending U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, who’s staying in a house across the street. And maybe a national audience eventually will, too.
Memphis’ golf tournament doesn’t look or feel the same this year. But here’s hoping it gives Aisen Cannon at least one moment worth remembering.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto