JACKSON, Miss. – Welcome to the Sanderson Farms Championship, the best little tournament on the PGA Tour.
The SFC is little only in relation to the rest of the Tour, which is populated with the FedEx Cup series, World Golf Championships, purses in excess of $6 million and the best golfers on the planet.
Yes, most of the world’s best are teeing it up in the WGC event in Shanghai this week, so the Sanderson Farms, with its $4.3 million purse, has the best of the rest who want to get their 2017-18 season rolling. Sometimes, smaller is better.
In fact, all you really need to know about the SFC is William McGirt. He won the Memorial Tournament last year and had such a good season that he earned a spot with the big names at the HSBC Champions in China last October. He turned it down because he was too fatigued from the FedEx Cup grind to travel that far. Instead, he wanted to support the tournament that helped him break onto the PGA Tour, the SFC, but Tour rules don’t allow a WGC-eligible player to compete in an opposite-field event.
McGirt, a small-town guy from Lumberton, N.C., who played college golf at Wofford and now lives near Spartanburg, S.C., is a bulldog. Determined to do his part, he arranged with tournament director Steve Jent to play in the SFC’s Wednesday pro-am even though McGirt wasn’t in the tournament field.
Who does that? Nobody. For McGirt, it was a way to thank Joe Sanderson Jr., chief executive of Sanderson Farms, the third-largest poultry producer in the U.S. and the only Fortune 1000 company based in Mississippi. (That’s why the tournament trophy is a bust of a rooster, by the way.)
“The first reason I came is because Mr. Sanderson made a commitment to this tournament for 10 years,” McGirt said of his unique pro-am appearance. “The second was for making huge investments back in the area where I grew up. He’s building another place there, and that area desperately needs jobs.”
While the tournament’s purse pales in comparison to the peak-season Tour stops, its impact on the region is unquestionably big. A study estimated the tournament meant $26 million to the Jackson area last year, and the SFC gave a local children’s hospital a check for $1.25 million. “As long as those numbers are good, we feel like we’ve been successful,” Jent told the local Clarion-Ledger.
What really makes the SFC special is the hometown touch. It’s about people and relationships, and Jent proved that by taking a group of rookies out to dinner Monday to welcome them to Mississippi and the Tour.
“Steve is very into the players, wants them to come back every year and will do whatever it takes,” said Tom Lovelady, who is playing only his second PGA Tour tournament. “He’s been great to me.”
The group went to Tico’s Steakhouse, one of Jackson’s best dining spots. “Everybody got steak; I ordered fish,” Lovelady said with a chagrined laugh. “I had steak the night before. I just couldn’t do it twice in a row.”
The food is one of the big perks at this tournament, besides getting treated like royalty.
“When we play in big cities like New York and Chicago, there are so many other pro sports going on like baseball, football, basketball and hockey,” said Dillard Pruitt, a former Tour winner who is a PGA Tour rules official. “When you come to smaller markets like Jackson for the Sanderson Farms or Moline, Illinois, for the John Deere Classic, you’re the only game in town for the whole year. The Southern hospitality here is great, and they specialize in Southern home-cooked meals at the Country Club of Jackson, with collard greens and green beans and mac and cheese and fried chicken and sweet tea. It’s not something you maybe want a steady diet of, but for one week, it’s pretty special.”
The SFC goes all out. Acme Oyster House, another top dining establishment in town, had two tents set up on the practice range Tuesday and lured players, caddies, agents and even the occasional writer with the sweet-smelling grill smoke.
Tour player Tyrone Van Aswegen, from Johannesburg, South Africa, stopped to chat while he ate. “This is my second bowl of gumbo,” Van Aswegen said. “I’m probably going to get more.”
This is his third SFC appearance, and Van Aswegen was disappointed that he missed last year’s tournament because he played the CIMB Classic the week before in Malaysia and couldn’t get back in time. “They’ve done a fantastic job with this tournament,” he said.
Players get another unique perk upon registering for the tournament. They get to choose from three gifts: a Big Green Egg ceramic grill, a fire pit or a set of Yeti coolers.
“Last year, my wife made me get the Big Green Egg, but I believe you can never have too many Yeti coolers, so I got those this year,” said Chesson Hadley, 30, a former Georgia Tech star who lives in Raleigh, N.C.
He was stunned when his Green Egg arrived after he returned home. “It’s delivered on a pallet,” Hadley said. “Somebody forklifts this thing off a truck and puts it in your driveway. It’s massive. I’ll bet it weighs a few hundred pounds.”
Hadley maneuvered it onto a heavy table with casters and can wheel it in and out of the garage whenever he wants to grill. Asked to choose the top highlight of his first SFC appearance last year, Hadley said, “I didn’t play very well, so I’d say it was the Green Egg. It does burgers and steaks great.”
Hadley said no other tournament does gift-giving like this. “The AT&T at Pebble Beach will give you a tablet or a digital camera, and I made the cut in Phoenix one year and got Bose headphones, which was pretty nice,” he said. “This week is the cream of the crop as far as a tee prize or door prize; I don’t even know what to call it.”
Just call it Southern hospitality. Nobody does it better on the PGA Tour than the Sanderson Farms Championship.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle