Cameron Champ, with the Sanderson Farms Championship champion’s trophy, answers questions about his record-setting tournament score.

Cameron Champ, already anointed golf’s next superstar by many experts, began the final round of the PGA Tour’s Sanderson Farms Championship with a four-shot lead on a beautiful, sun-kissed Sunday.

That’s golf’s version of cruise control.

But then, during Champ’s pre-round practice session, he swung his driver with such force – about 130 mph – the club head cracked. That’s golf’s version of a flat tire.

No problem, he had another driver club head in the trunk of his car, a spare if you will.

Rick Cleveland

So his round began. He parred the first two holes, birdied the third, still cruising. He parred the next three, to retain a three-shot lead over Corey Conners, with whom he was playing.

That’s when Champ’s golf engine began to leak oil. He bogeyed holes seven and eight, and the lead was down to one. Conners birdied the ninth and Champ’s lead was gone – kaput.

Winning your first PGA Tour tournament isn’t supposed to be easy. But Champ’s road to victory suddenly faced a huge detour that was fast becoming a road block, if not a full-fledged wreck. It didn’t help when he chilly-dipped a short chip shot on the par-5 11th hole and had to settle for a par that had to seem like still another bogey.

Champ and Conners reached 13th hole all even. It was a two-man race. So this was the 23-year-old Champ’s moment of truth. Doesn’t matter if you bomb your driver and average of 340 yards if you can’t make the putts when you need to make them most.

So what does Champ do?

Well, he birdies the par-3 13th to match Conners’ birdie, and then he shifts into overdrive. He birdies the par-5 14th, the par-4 15th, and then the par-4 16th – that’s four in a row if you’re keeping score, and in tournament golf they always do. Conners, a 26-year-old Canadian also looking for his first PGA Tour victory, could not keep pace.

So, in only his second start as a full-fledged PGA Tour member, Cameron Mackray Champ won his first PGA Tour victory, worthth $792,000. It will not be his last. The California native and former Texas A & M Aggie has talent galore. Here, at the Country Club of Jackson, when a breakdown seemed imminent, he showed he also has the nerve, moxie and grit. He made all the crucial shots – all the critical putts – and that’s what golf is all about.

Known for his long drives and superior ball-striking ability, Champ acknowledged his putter won it for him Sunday.

“Putting is the part of my game I’ve worked hardest on, so that meant a lot to me,” Champ said. “Because of my ball striking, I’ve always had a lot of birdie opportunities. It’s really nice when I start to make them pay off.”

After a par on the 17th ended the four-birdie streak, he birdied the 505-yard, par-4 18th for good measure, to make his final victory margin four shots – which was his lead to start the day. Champ (65-70-64-68 – 267) shot the lowest 72-hole score since Mississippi’s only PGA Tour tournament moved to Country Club of Jackson from Annandale and Madison five years ago.

And Sunday was what Joe Sanderson, CEO of Sanderson Farms, surely had in mind when the tournament moved here with fall dates in 2014. The weather was post-card perfect, the course in pristine condition. If anything, the course looked even more picturesque on The Golf Channel’s world-wide coverage than it did in person. Although no official numbers were available, the gallery Sunday seemed the largest in the event’s history.

“I’ve never seen anywhere near that many people on this golf course,” Sanderson said. “We’re thrilled with the way everything went this year.”

For much of the tournament’s 51-year history, the selling point has been that this is where you can see golf’s future superstars up close and personal on their way to the top.

This year, this time – this Champ – that seems more true than ever.

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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.