Spain's Sergio Garcia holds the Sanderson Farms Championship trophy after winning the PGA golf tournament in Jackson, Miss., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Sergio Garcia, who last week became the winning-est player in Ryder Cup history, easily could have skipped this week’s Sanderson Farms Championship, which begins Thursday at Country Club of Jackson.

Garcia, the Sanderson Farms defending champion, could have used exhaustion – both mental and physical – as an excuse. And, really, who would have blamed him? If you watched the Ryder Cup matches, you know how much of himself he poured into every match, every shot. And you know how well he played in a losing cause at demanding Whistling Straits, hard by Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shore.

Rick Cleveland

At 41, Garcia teamed with fellow Spaniard John Rahm to win three points for Europe, giving him 27.5 points in his 10 Ryder Cups. That enabled him to pass Sir Nick Faldo as the all-time leader. He long ago passed the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. If there ever was a time to rest on his laurels, this was it.

But, no, Garcia was out at CCJ at daylight Wednesday, teeing it up in the Sanderson Farms pro-am and later he was in the interview room explaining why he really never considered skipping Mississippi’s lone tournament on the PGA Tour.

“Well, it’s quite simple. I try to defend my titles every time I can,” Garcia said.”I haven’t been able to do it every single time, but I love to do it every possibility I have.”

Good old-fashioned Mississippi hospitality also played a role, Garcia indicated.

“Second of all, the way everyone treated us here was just amazing,” he added. “And the golf course is just a great golf course, the kind that I enjoy coming back and playing, and I wish I could play more golf courses like this on tour.

“It’s the kind of golf course that make you think a little, but it’s not tricked up or anything like that….So it’s just a solid golf course and a great tournament and I am excited to be back.”

Garcia surely will be welcomed with open arms by Mississippi golf fans, who could not attend in person (because of COVID concerns) last year when Garcia utilized his skills as one of golf’s greatest ball strikers ever to shoot shoot a 72-hole total of 19-under par to win by a single shot. He almost holed a 172-yard 8-iron (into a breeze) to set up a 30-inch birdie putt on the 72nd hole. Earlier, he blasted an incredible 260-yard 5-wood shot to set up an eagle to begin his charge toward the victory.

Those same shot-making skills were on full display at the Ryder Cup last week, when he and Rahm provided just about the only highlights for the Europeans. Rahm showed why he is world’s No. 1 ranked player, and Garcia displayed the will and dogged competitiveness that have made him the Ryder Cup legend he is. Garcia and American Dustin Johnson won the inaugural Jack Nicklaus-Tony Jacklin Award, based on sportsmanship, teamwork and performance.

“I love the Ryder Cup,” Garcia said, in accepting the award. “…I try to play the game to the best of my ability, but always with respect and I enjoyed it.”

Garcia said it was important to show young players “that you can play with respect and have fun, even in defeat. I love my team. I’m so proud of all of them…. I love the guys in that room.”

Here at CCJ, the big question seems: How much of that competitiveness and energy will Garcia have left in his tank after that whirlwind week in Wisconsin, a return to his Austin home for not quite 48 hours, before traveling to Jackson Tuesday evening.

“I feel good,” Garcia said. “I’m not going to lie, obviously didn’t get much sleep on Sunday night. But Monday and Tuesday it’s been good, I was able to rest a little bit in Austin with the family, got here last night and I feel pretty good at the moment. 

“Obviously you all know how much I love the Ryder Cup and even though, yes, there’s a lot of energy involved in it and that you put on it and stuff, I still love it every time I play it. So at the moment I feel quite good, I don’t think it has hit me yet and hopefully it won’t hit me until I get back to Austin next week, so I can have a good solid week here.”

To repeat here, Garcia must find enough energy to beat the best field in the Mississippi tournament’s 54-year history. Several recent major championship winners are involved including 2019 U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, Zach Johnson (2007 Masters and 2015 British Open), 2016 PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker and 2009 U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover. Also playing here are, 2011 FedExCup champion Brandt Snedeker, 2017 Players Champion Is Woo Kim and 2021 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Will Zalatoris (Masters runner-up last April) and 2019 U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree, the Mississippian who was low amateur in the 2020 Masters.

Garcia, for one, is not surprised by the quality of the field.

Said he, “I think as people come and play and they see the quality of the golf course and the quality of the tournament it just goes from mouth to mouth and then probably more of the top guys want to come and play. It’s as simple as that.”

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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.