Golf’s next big superstar is in Jackson

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Golf’s next superstar is in Jackson this week. He’s got the name to go with his game, too: Cameron Champ.

Rick Cleveland

You could have found him at the top of the leaderboard on a gray, wet, windy Thursday at Country Club of Jackson. His 7-under-par 65 leads the tournament after one round.

On the 18th hole, you could have found him in the middle of the fairway, 347 yards from the tee on the par-four hole. I watched him launch his tee shot from just behind the tee. The ball left his clubface so fast, I could not follow it. It was ridiculous. He was 80 to 100 yards ahead of his playing partners, hitting a flip wedge into the green. Yes, he hit it close and made birdie.

Cameron Champ’s raw power is no longer secret, as the cover of this month’s Golf Digest shows.

You can find the 23-year-old Champ on the cover of this month’s Golf Digest magazine with a headline that blares “CAMERON CHAMP’S POWER MOVE.” Inside, there’s another headline that reads: “Here’s an EXCLUSIVE LOOK at how THIS ROOKIE became the LONGEST PLAYER on the pro tours.”

You could have found him in the PGA Tour interview room afterward trying to explain how he gets all that distance from his lean, 6-foot, 180-pound frame.

“It’s just my natural move down through the ball,” Champ said. “It doesn’t look like I’m swinging hard…”

But clearly he is. On the Web.com Tour earlier this year, he averaged 343 yards per drive. Dustin Johnson, generally considered the longest player on the PGA Tour, averaged 310 yards last year.

On the 330-yard, par-4 15th hole Thursday, Champ drove the ball over the green. Remember, this was in a drizzling rain on a wet day. (He chipped back up and made the birdie putt.)

Champ is much more than a long driver. He’s got game. At the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, he shot even par for 72 holes. He was the second low amateur overall and finished 32nd overall, ahead of players named Spieth, Cink, Westwood and many more. He turned pro after that and earned PGA Tour playing privileges by finishing 11th on the Web.com money list, including a victory in the Utah Open. In the Utah Open, at high altitude, he averaged 391 yards per drive. Really.

The more you know about him, the easier it is to pull for him.

Champ hails from Sacramento, Calif., where his best pal is his paternal grandfather, Mack Champ, a black Viet Nam veteran. Mack Champ introduced grandson Cameron to golf when he was 2 years old. Cameron used plastic clubs at first. One of the games the two enjoyed was hitting golf balls over Mack’s house.

“I always loved going to Grandpa’s house,” Cameron Champ said Thursday.

Mack Champ took his grandson to a par 3 course early on, then bought a membership to it so the youngster could play as often as possible. Now, Cameron Champ’s foundation – yes, he’s such a sure thing as a PGA Tour rookie he already has his own foundation – has leased that par-3 course to use for junior golf programs.

“We never had much when I was young but I was always taught to give back,” Cameron Champ said.

Mack Champ married his wife in Germany while still in the military. Their son Jeff, born in London, is Cameron’s dad.

Cameron Champ, also the child of a biracial marriage, already has won awards named after African American golfing legends Charlie Sifford and Calvin Peete. Probably sooner rather than later, he will win his first PGA Tour tournament. It could be here. This week.

The Country Club of Jackson course stretches out to a lengthy 7,421 yards, made longer by Thursday’s rain. When you hit the ball as far as Cameron Champ, it plays amazingly short. Champ called it “score-able.”

“I just need to make some putts,” he said.

No matter how far you hit the ball – and nobody hits it longer than this guy – golf always comes down to that.