OXFORD – For his 44th birthday present, left-handed, veteran golf pro Eric Axley on Sunday won the first North Mississippi Classic, the newest tournament on the PGA’s web.com Tour.

“The check (for $99,000) will be a nice gift,” Axley said.

He should send a thank-you note to Mother Nature, who threw a wet blanket over Sunday’s scheduled fourth round. South Korean K.H. Lee had moved into a tie for the lead when play was halted because of steady rain. When PGA officials decided the course was unplayable, the scoreboard reverted to the end of Saturday’s round when Axley held a three-shot lead.

After a week of bright, sun-kissed weather, the cold front that moved through Mississippi on Sunday dumped nearly two inches of rain on the hilly Country Club of Oxford course, saturating the greens and fairways and valleys.

Axley, who had played three holes when play was halted, called Sunday’s conditions “miserable.”

“The course was really soaked and it’s still raining,” he said. “They (PGA officials) definitely made the right call.”

Axley shot rounds of 71, 65 and 68 for a 12-under par 204, three shots better than Willy Wilox, Sebastion Munoz and Lee.

Axley, who won the PGA Tour’s 2006 Valero Open, made a veteran decision on Saturday when he saw the Sunday weather forecast.

“I knew there was a chance that yesterday’s round might be the last round, so I played like it was,” he said. “I took an aggressive approach.”

It paid off for the Tennessean, who becomes the first player over the age of 28 to win this season on the web.com Tour, which serves as golf’s Class AAA to the PGA Tour.

Axley said he has played well in Mississippi before.

“I’ve always played solid golf in the Sanderson Farms tournament, and I actually won a tournament in Mississippi a long time ago,” he said.

He did. He won a tournament on the old Hooters Tour in 2002 at Grand Bear in Biloxi.

The victory Sunday was much more lucrative and puts Axley in solid position to regain his PGA Tour card.

Asked what he was going to have for his birthday dinner, Axley replied, smiling: “I don’t know. It will probably be liquid.”

Ole Miss’s 21-year-old junior Braden Thornberry, the only amateur in the 156-man field, finished in a tie for 22nd with his rounds of 75-69-69, nine shots behind the winner.

Thornberry was one under par through his aborted fourth round, which included a spectacular eagle on the 606-yard fourth hole.

Thornberry, who will compete in next week’s SEC Championship for Ole Miss, would have been in contention if not for two triple bogeys and a double bogey in Thursday’s opening round of 75.

“I played solid golf and my score could have been much lower,” Thornberry said. “I thought it was a good week and I thought the tournament was a success. It was really fun for me to play before the home crowd.”

Tournament director Steve Jent called the first North Mississippi Classic a success. The tournament is in the first year of a three-year contract with the PGA Tour. The event probably will need to find a title sponsor to continue beyond the current contract, Jent said.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.