Sanderson Farms Championship: no more second fiddle for state’s PGA Tour event

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Rick Cleveland

Joe Sanderson, with the PGA Tour’s Fed Ex Cup trophy on the left and the Sanderson Farms Championship trophy on the right.

You likely have seen Mississippi’s big golf news today: The Sanderson Farms Championship, long the state’s premier golf tournament played annually at Country Club of Jackson, is switching dates and stepping up in status on the PGA Tour.

The 2019 Sanderson Farms Championship will be played Sept. 16-22 and the total purse zooms from $4.4 million to $6.6 million. But the money is not the big deal.

Rick Cleveland

The big deal is this: Mississippi’s lone tournament on the PGA Tour will now be what tour officials refer to as an “unencumbered’ event. That means there is no other PGA Tour tournament played on those days. The Sanderson Farms Championship has its own, stand-alone dates. There’s no competition.

That is huge.

The winner of the Sanderson Farms Championship automatically will receive an invitation to play in The Masters.

That is huge.

Last year, the local tournament was played opposite the World Golf Classic event in Shanghai, China. The top 50 ranked players in the world played there. That’s where virtually all golf’s big-name players played that week.

This coming September, the CCJ-based tournament plays second fiddle to nothing. Tiger Woods is not required to play here but he might. So might Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and others.

We shall see.

Let’s look at two “unencumbered” fall tournaments from 2018 with similar purses to the $6.6 million that will be offered here.

Kevin Tway won the Safeway Open in Napa, Calif., against a field that included Mickelson, Fred Couples and Brandt Snedeker among others. Bryson DeChambeau won the Shriners Hospital event in Las Vegas against a field that included Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and Tony Finau among others.

In the past Mississippi’s PGA Tour tournament has billed itself as an event where fans can see the stars of the future. Now, the Sanderson Farms Championship should bring some of the stars of today. The Sanderson Farms tourney will be the second event on the 2019-20 PGA Tour schedule, one week after the Greenbrier (W.V.) Classic tees off the season.

“This has been our goal from the day we became the title sponsor (in 2013),” said Joe Sanderson, the CEO of Laurel-based Sanderson Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the U.S. “And this is only the beginning. We’re going to continue to grow the tournament and improve it in every way possible.”

Andy Pazder, PGA Tour chief of competitions and tournaments officer, was on hand at CCJ for Tuesday afternoon’s announcement. He said the Jackson tournament’s stand-alone status is a result of Sanderson’s persistence and professionalism. Asked why make the move now, Pazder joked, “Because I got tired of answering Joe’s calls.”

“Joe Sanderson is the kind of tournament sponsor the PGA Tour dreams about,” Pazder said. “Honestly, I can’t think of a better partner for the Tour.”

Since agreeing to a 10-year commitment with the PGA Tour beginning in 2016, Sanderson has been bullish about pursuing “unencumbered” status.

“This was the logical next step,” Sanderson said. “Now then, we want to improve the experience of our players, our patrons, out sponsors, everybody.”

With the new status, comes a need to raise more money to pay for the additional purse. Sanderson believes that a much-improved field of players will make that possible.

“We’ll need to sell out both our pro-ams and there’s no saying we can’t have another one, a third pro-am,” he said. “We’ll need more sponsors, more chalets, more fans, more everything. I just have to believe that if we get a good number of those Top 50 players all that will happen.”

Sanderson said he hopes eventually the tournament will move to October dates and cooler temperatures.

“One step at a time,” he said. “Today was a big, big step.”

No question about that.