Winner Sam Burns is congratulated by Sanderson Farms CEO Joe Sanderson, at the Sanderson Farms Championship in Jackson, Sunday, October 3, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

At the Country Club of Jackson this weekend, Joe Sanderson surely enjoyed what he has desired all along since he stepped up and effectively rescued Mississippi’s only PGA Tour tournament from extinction back in 2013.

Rick Cleveland

Now, we’ll see what the future holds for the 54-year-old Sanderson Farms Championship, which has raised millions upon millions for Mississippi charities, primarily Children’s of Mississippi Hospital. We’ll get to that uncertain future shortly, but first let’s count the ways that the 2021 championship was precisely what Sanderson has envisioned:

  • Weather. When humid, warmer-than-normal October temperature is the lone complaint for a tournament that has endured spring floods, broiling July heat, tornadoes, hurricanes and more, we can consider that a good thing.
  • World class golf. Sam Burns, one of the tour’s hottest young guns won with a final round 67 and a 72-hole total of 22 under par. You’ve never seen so many birdies. Ten golfers finished the 72 holes with scores of 19-under par or better. The most accomplished field in the tournament’s history took advantage of the cooperative weather and the pristine greens to pepper the leaderboard with red numbers from start to finish.
  • Crowds. There were none last year because of COVID, but the galleries returned this past week — and especially over the weekend — helped by Mississippi’s major college football programs all playing road games Saturday. Mississippi’s PGA tourney had the look and feel of a what we see on network TV on a weekly basis.

Any other time you’d say the future appears brighter than Sunday’s sunshine. And it still could be. But it is no great secret what clouds the Sanderson Farms tournament’s future. It’s the pending $4.5 billion sale of Sanderson Farms, the Laurel-based poultry company, to Cargill and Continental Grain, two international agricultural conglomerates. The sale is expected to go through before the end of the year or early 2022 at the latest.

Yes, Sanderson Farms is under a current 10-year contract the PGA Tour to sponsor the tournament through 2026, but that contract is non-transferable in the event of new ownership, Joe Sanderson said earlier this week. What that means is that it will be up to the new ownership to determine whether to keep funding the event.

Sanderson Farms CEO Joe Sanderson, at the Sanderson Farms Championship in Jackson, Thursday, September 30, 2021.

“There are no guarantees, but I am optimistic,” said Sanderson. “Both the buyers are community minded companies. I have high hopes they will see fit to continue. This tournament has been a blessing for Jackson, for Mississippi and for Mississippi children.”

And perhaps the new owners will continue what has become a Mississippi tradition. But there’s no possible way the new ownership could be as invested in the Magnolia State as Sanderson. You should know that Sanderson is as Mississippi as grits and biscuits. He grew up in Laurel, played halfback in high school for the legendary Barney Poole and went to college at Millsaps. Sanderson Farms, under his guidance, has grown from a community farm supply store — a family business that sold seed, feed, fertilizer and other farm supplies — into the country’s third largest poultry producer. Yes, and corporate offices are still listed at 127 Flynt Road, Laurel, MS 39443.

In contrast, Continental Grain was founded in Belgium and has offices in 10 countries with headquarters in New York City. Cargill has home offices in Minnesota and Delaware.

“I have high hopes this tournament will continue and will continue to grow here,” said Sanderson, who said he will make the first payment to the PGA Tour toward 2022 tournament next month.

Meanwhile, Steve Jent, the tournament’s executive director, says work on the 2022 event will begin immediately.

“We are working on the assumption that we have five years left on the agreement with the PGA Tour,” Jent said. “But we aren’t privy what is going on with the sale. For us, right now, it is business as usual.”

Business was good, really good, this past week. As for the future, clearly, it is very much up in the air. Count the championship’s newest champion, Burns, among those hoping to see it continue. The 25-year-old Shreveport native and former LSU player turned pro in 2017. His first PGA event that year was Joe Sanderson’s baby.

“This is one of my favorite events on tour, I always enjoy coming here, being close to home…” Burns said. “God willing I’ll be able to play here for the next 20 years, and it will always have a special place in my heart.”

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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.