We call Mississippi’s only PGA Tour tournament the Sanderson Farms Championship. This past week, it might as well have been renamed the World Open.
The leaders were from all over the planet. Mackenzie Hughes, a 31-year-old Canadian, won the Sanderson rooster trophy and the $1,422,000 check that came with it. Sepp Straka finished second, losing on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff. Straka, from Vienna, has the distinction of being the first Austrian to first qualify for the PGA Tour and then win on it.
Lefty Garrick Higgo finished third. He’s from South Africa. Dean Burmester, another South African, was fourth all alone. Emiliano Grillo, from Argentina, led a group in a tie for fifth.
The Sanderson Farms Championship was played one week after the Presidents Cup matches, in which a team of Americans won easily over a team of international golfers. It seemed clear Sunday the international team could have used Hughes and a few more of the globetrotters who got a lot richer at Country Club of Jackson.
Hughes, from Hamilton, Ontario, shot rounds of 71, 63, 68 and 69 for a 72-hole total of 17-under par 271. He began Sunday one shot off the lead of American Mark Hubbard, who finished with a 74 and wound up in the fifth place tie.
“I’m over the moon,” Hughes said afterward. “I had some moments today where I was tested and was able to pull through. It’s kind of my M.O. to scramble and save some pars. I had to do that a little bit today on the back nine.”
Actually, he had to do it a lot. Hughes missed the green 24 times in the 72-hole tournament. He scrambled for par successfully on 22 of the 24. None was more important than the all-universe par he made on the 72nd hole of regulation to force the playoff.
The 18th hole at CCJ is a 480-yard par-4 with an uphill shot to the green. Playing in long shadows with the sun setting, beautifully, behind the clubhouse, Hughes pulled his drive left into the rough and then had to hit a low shot, beneath the limbs of a pine tree, into the green. His shot skittered over the green and back to within a couple feet of a luxury suite. He faced a 34-yard shot back to the hole, and chose to putt.
“You don’t practice putts that long,” Hughes would say. “I just told myself I was going to somehow two-putt that hole.”
His approach putt, from over 100 feet away, was perfectly judged distance-wise and left him a two-footer to get into the playoff. He tapped it right into the center of the cup.
The sudden death playoff was pre-arranged to start on No. 18. Both parred the 18th, Hughes again scrambling from a bunker fronting the green. So, they played the 18th again and, for Hughes, the third time in a 45-minute span was a charm. He hit a perfect drive, then a 165-yard approach shot to within eight feet of the cup. After Straka missed his 18-footer for birdie, Hughes poured his into the center of the cup. He was already celebrating as the ball approached the hole.
“I knew when it was a foot away, it was going right in the middle,” Hughes said. “That’s the best feeling in the world.”
That best feeling in the world became even better when his pregnant wife and two young sons headed onto the green to celebrate with him.
“That was the coolest part of the whole deal,” Hughes said. “Words can’t describe how good that feels because I love them so much.”
Mackenzie Hughes and his wife, Jenna Shaw, were newlyweds in October of 2016 when Hughes, a rookie still in his first month on the PGA Tour, won the RSM Classic and the first place prize of early a million bucks. If Hughes thought it would always be that easy, he was badly wrong. He had not won again until Sunday, and there’s a story there.
“My oldest son Kenton (soon to be 5) has seen all my trophies but he had never seen me win one,” Hughes said. “He’s old enough to understand it a little bit now and he’s always asking when I am going to win another trophy and when does he get to have a trophy. So this one might have to stay in his room for a while.”
Mississippi’s PGA Tour tournament, which began in Hattiesburg 54 years ago, has been played in the past during April floods, in brutal July heat and was at least once interrupted by a tornado. This year’s sun-kissed event was played under cloudless skies in immaculate autumn weather on what many golfers said are some of the best putting greens in the world.
Nevertheless, the tournament, which has donated more than $10 million to Children’s of Mississippi Hospital since 2013, has faced an indefinite future because of the recently completed sale of Sanderson Farms. That future looked a little brighter after a statement from J. Clinton (Clint) Rivers, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Wayne-Sanderson Farms, the company’s new name.
“We are a newly formed company – literally as of two months ago – and we have a bright future ahead of us,” Rivers said. “For many of us this is our first experience with this event, and I couldn’t think of a better experience. The children’s hospital is a great charity for us to be involved with, and we are proud to be associated with them. I have been asked several times this week about the future of the championship, and I have only one thing to say. See you next year.”
That will come as welcome news to both the children’s hospital and to Mackenzie Hughes, a Canadian who has learned to adore central Mississippi and the state’s capital city.
“I love this golf course,” Hughes said. “I’ll be back for many, many more years.”