Steve Jent, executive director of the Sanderson Farms Championship, holds a check for $1.5 million, the golf tournament's record contribution to Children's of Mississippi Hospital. Jent, Joe Sanderson (center) and Pat Busby were all smiles Tuesday morning at the hospital. The tournament has donated $10,662,000 to UMMC since 2013. Credit: UMMC Communications and Marketing

The Sanderson Farms Championship, Mississippi’s lone tournament on the PGA Tour, Tuesday presented a record $1.5 million to the state’s only children’s hospital, Children’s of Mississippi at University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC).

The 2022 contribution comes after $1.45 million last year, $1.3 million the year before, and more than $10 million since 2013.

Sanderson Farms CEO and board chairman Joe Sanderson made clear his company’s stewardship of the tournament is not about golf.

“It’s about this. It’s about today,” Sanderson said. “It’s about the babies, and the mothers and dads who come through these doors with fear, anxiety and they don’t know what. They just need a doctor and nurses and staff, and later a lot of them leave with a smile on their faces and hope for the future. That’s why our company and our board took on this tournament.”

Appropriately, Sanderson made the contribution in the hospital’s new seven-story Sanderson Tower (opened in November 2020), which has more than doubled the hospital’s space for pediatric care at UMMC. More than 200,000 children a year receive care at UMMC.

What remains unclear is the future of the Sanderson Farms Championship. Sanderson Farms and the PGA Tour are contracted through 2026, but the pending sale of Laurel-based Sanderson Farms, the country’s third largest poultry producer, to two out-of-state corporations potentially could change that.

The $4.5 billion sale to New York-based Continental Grain and Minnesota-based Cargill was expected to be finalized in late 2021 or early this year, but has been delayed by a U.S. Department of Justice review that could last well into the late spring or summer.

Sanderson has said in the past that it will be up to the new ownership, if the sale is approved, to determine the future of the tournament.

“What we know now is that we’re definitely going to have a tournament this year,” Sanderson said Tuesday. “And we’re excited about it and what it will mean for this hospital.”

The 2021 Sanderson Farms Championship will be played at Country Club of Jackson Sept. 30-Oct. 3. Last year’s tournament, won by former LSU golfer Sam Burns, was likely the most successful in the tournament’s 55-year history with sunny skies, large galleries and a best-ever field of professional golfers.

Asked about the tournament’s future shortly after Burns’ victory, Sanderson said, “There are no guarantees, but I am optimistic. 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.”

This much seems certain: The new owners would have nowhere near the vested interest in Mississippi as Sanderson, the 75-year-old former Laurel Tornado football player, who has guided his company from a community feed store to a poultry conglomerate with sales approaching $3.5 billion per year.

Sanderson has put much of his own money into Children’s of Mississippi, 

Joe and Kathy Sanderson launched a $100 million fund-raising campaign for the hospital in 2016 with a $10 million personal gift. Since then, the campaign has raised about 94% of its $100 million goal.

Dr. Lou Ann Woodward, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, Tuesday talked about what Sanderson and his tournament have meant to UMMC.

“Already this building has touched thousands of lives,” Woodward said. “Children have been born here and lived the first part of their lives here. Children have been transferred here from other hospitals because they need the kind of care we have here. Thousands of children, thousands of surgeries, thousands of CAT scans and MRIs and clinic appointments – and we’re just getting started.”

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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.