‘The little tournament that is’

By RICK CLEVELAND,

The PGA Tour's Sanderson Farms Championship – once dubbed “the little tournament that could” by Sports Illustrated – has graduated to new, exalted status in its 51st year of existence.

We can now call it Mississippi's golf tournament that did.

Back in 2005, Sports Illustrated was chronicling how the tournament, then played at Annandale in Madison, was working overtime to survive two hurricanes in one summer. And that was after a weather-checkered run that included a 100-year flood, almost yearly inclement weather, community apathy and a move from Hattiesburg to the Jackson area.

The tournament began as a $20,000 PGA “satellite” event back in 1968 at the Hattiesburg Country Club played opposite big, limited field PGA Tour tournaments and majors.

Now look at it: This week's tournament, to be played Thursday through Sunday at Country Club of Jackson, is a stand-alone PGA Tour event, with its own dates played opposite of nothing. One hundred and fifty six of the best golfers in the world will play for a purse of $6.6 million with the winner earning a whopping $1,188,000.

No, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson will not play here. Neither will Jordan Spieth or Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson or Rickie Fowler.

But 17 guys who have won on the PGA Tour over the past two years will play. Brandt Snedeker, who has won 13 times professionally and shot a 59 in last year's Wyndham Championship, will play here. So will five-time Ryder Cup standout Zack Johnson who has won The Masters, The Open (British) and 12 PGA Tour tournaments.

South Korean K.J. Choi, an eight-time PGA Tour winner, and the most successful Asian golfer ever, has entered, along with 2016 PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker, 2013 PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner, 2009 U.S. Open winner Lucas Glover and 2011 FedExCup champion Bill Haas.

Fifty-five of the 2019 PGA Tour's top 125 money winners are in the field, including Chez Reavie, currently ranked the 26th best player in the world.

“It's easily the best field in the history of our tournament,” said Steve Jent, the tournament's executive director. “I'm extremely pleased, and I think we will see it get even better in the coming years when the word gets out about how good the golf course is and about our hospitality, how well the players are treated who come here.”

Defending champion Cameron Champ, the longest hitter on the PGA Tour, is back, along with other past champions Haas, Ryan Armour, Peter Malnati, Nick Taylor, Scott Stallings, DJ Trahan and Chad Campbell.

There will be plenty local talent showcased as well. Braden Thornberry of Olive Branch and Ole Miss, the 2017 NCAA Champion, has been granted a sponsor's exemption into the field. So has Hattiesburg native Davis Riley, a three-time All American at Alabama, and 2019 Mississippi State Amateur champion Joe Deraney of Belden.

Throughout its existence part of the allure of Mississippi's biggest golf tournament has been to discover the PGA Tour's next superstars on their way up. Golf legends such as Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and John Daly all played in what was then called the Magnolia Classic in Hattiesburg.

Looking for that guy?

You might want to take a look at 17-year-old phenom Akshay Bhatia, who will be making his professional debut in Jackson. That's right, Bhatia, a left-hander, goes from the No. 1 junior player in the world directly to the PGA Tour, skipping college golf all together.

“Unbelievable talent,” Jent said of Bhatia. “He weighs about 130 pounds but he hits the ball out of sight. His maturity, for his age, is astounding.”

No matter who wins the tournament – established pro, local favorite or golf's next superstar – the big winner will be Batson Children's Hospital at University of Mississippi Medical Center. Since 1994, the event has raised in excess of $15 million for the hospital, including a record $1.25 million donation this past year.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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