News & Opinion

PGA Tour success was no can’t-miss in Mississippi

The idea: Give aspiring pros hoping to make a living at golf a place to play and hone their games. The new tournament was called the Magnolia State Classic. There was no title sponsor and seemingly little future.

JACKSON, Miss. – This was May 1968. A group of businessmen/golfers at the Hattiesburg (Miss.) Country Club arranged to stage a professional golf tournament at their pristine, pine tree-forested club located about an hour's drive from the Gulf of Mexico.

The event offered a total purse of $20,000, of which $2,800 would go to the winner. The tournament was loosely affiliated with the PGA of America, which deemed it a “satellite” event played opposite the Colonial National Invitation. The idea: Give aspiring pros hoping to make a living at golf a place to play and hone their games. The new tournament was called the Magnolia State Classic. There was no title sponsor and seemingly little future.

Fifty-one years later, that humble, little tournament has moved twice, has been interrupted by a 100-year flood, a couple of hurricanes and at least one scary tornado. Besides often hellish weather, the tournament has survived apathy, the loss of several title sponsors and big changes in PGA Tour structure. Once deemed “The Little Tournament that Could” by Sports Illustrated, the tournament this week becomes Mississippi's PGA Tour event that has prevailed against all odds.

Cameron Champ
Cameron Champ, winner of the 2018 Sanderson Farms Championship, looks as proud as a rooster. In fact, so does Joe Sanderson (right), the chief executive of the tournament sponsor.

It has been played opposite not only the Colonial but also the Masters, British Open and World Golf Championship events. Now, what has become known as the Sanderson Farms Championship has its own standalone dates on the PGA Tour. The purse has zoomed to $6.6 million. The winner will earn $1,188,000. The chap who finishes in 46th place Sunday will earn $20,790, more than the entire purse of the original Magnolia State Classic. The larva-to-butterfly-like metamorphosis, achieved over half a century, has been amazing to witness.

This reporter has watched all this happen from a unique vantage point. Then a 15-year-old high school golfer, I caddied in the first Magnolia State Classic for a pro whom I might have beaten. Sneezing from all the pine tree pollen, he shot 83-85 and headed north thoroughly humiliated, having caromed balls off so many pine trees that he was ready to rename the place Ricochet Country Club. B.R. “Mac” McLendon, a 22-year-old rookie fresh out of LSU, beat 53-year-old journeyman pro Pete Fleming in a sudden-death playoff that lasted nine holes and ended with club members shining their car headlights onto the ninth green. Since then, I have reported on the tournament at all three of its venues, as a writer, editor and columnist.

The late Robert Morgan, one of those Hattiesburg businessmen who concocted the Magnolia State Classic, became the tournament's executive director and shepherded the event for 38 years, through thick and mostly thin. Morgan, the PGA Tour's longest-running director at the time of his retirement, is one of the two people most responsible for what the Sanderson Farms Championship has become. The other: Joe Sanderson, chief executive officer of the nation's third-largest chicken producer, who bailed out the then-sponsorless tournament in 2013. Morgan nursed and sustained it; Sanderson made it whole.

This writer was the sports editor of the Hattiesburg American in 1976 when Morgan appeared at the newspaper's front door, a grim look on his face. “I'm coming to y'all because I got no place else to go,” Morgan told us. “The Magnolia Classic is on life support. If the community doesn't support us, we're history.”

Morgan handed us a press release that read like challenge to the Hattiesburg community and to the state of Mississippi. We published a news story and opined that the tournament was worth saving. The community did step up, and the tournament survived – even the Easter Flood of 1979 and another flood in 1980 when Roger Maltbie shot a first-round 65 and then sat through four days of thunderstorms, never hitting another golf ball, to win the title. On Monday, when the tournament was canceled, I went in search of Maltbie and found him in the bar at the Ramada Inn. He did not disappoint when I asked him how it felt to win $4,500 for one round of golf. “Hell,” he answered, “that won't even pay my bar tab.”

Fresh out of Stanford, Tom Watson, sporting a mustache, played in Hattiesburg. So did Johnny Miller. Many future Tour superstars competed in Hattiesburg on their way up. Some won. Payne Stewart, before the knickers, won in 1982. Jim Gallagher Jr. beat Paul Azinger in a playoff in 1985. David Ogrin beat Nick Faldo by a shot in 1987. The tournament moved from Hattiesburg to Madison, a few miles north of Jackson, in 1994. Rain followed. Brian Henninger had to play only two rounds to win on a partially flooded course in 1994 at Jack Nicklaus-designed Annandale Golf Club. Henninger won again in 1999 when the tournament was shortened to 54 holes due to the tragic death of Stewart.

The tournament was sponsor-less and again on life support in 2013 when Sanderson, the chicken magnate from Laurel, stepped in with badly needed cash and a hands-on approach to managing the tournament. That first year, Sanderson showed up at the Monday qualifying to thank each entrant for participating. Sanderson moved the tournament to Mississippi's capital city and the Country Club of Jackson in 2014. He still makes it a point to thank every pro who plays. He has more than doubled the purse in six years and has committed to sponsor the event through 2026. The tour could use a few more sponsors like Sanderson.

And that's one reason why Brandt Snedeker, a nine-time Tour winner, decided to play here this week and help make this by far the most accomplished playing field in the 51-year history.

“Sanderson Farms has been great for the Tour,” Snedeker said. “They have really stepped up and made this a first-class event. They deserve our support.”

Thus, the so-called “little tournament that could” has become a full-fledged PGA Tour tournament that did.