Rick Cleveland

Mississippi’s lone PGA event has plenty of tradition

Roberto Castro directs, right, his caddie to his ball on the final hole in the first round of the Sanderson Farms Classic golf tournament in Jackson on Nov 5, 2015.
Roberto Castro directs, right, his caddie to his ball on the final hole in the first round of the Sanderson Farms Classic golf tournament in Jackson on Nov 5, 2015. Associated Press

The Sanderson Farms Championship, Mississippi's stop on the PGA Tour, began in Hattiesburg 48 years ago as the Magnolia State Classic.

It was played in May, opposite the Colonial Invitational. B.R. “Mac” McLendon, a rookie fresh out of LSU, won the first tournament he ever entered, defeating veteran pro Pete Fleming in a nine-hole playoff.

They actually played 45 holes that Sunday long ago, because of rains that had flooded the Hattiesburg Country Club earlier in the week.

In fact, rains have been pretty much the one constant in the once humble, little tournament that has evolved into a $4.1 million annual tour stop televised around the world by The Golf Channel.

If the weather forecast is correct, this year's tournament will break that muddy mold. Sunny skies, with highs in the low to mid 80s are predicted. There is no more than a 20 percent chance of rain any day. Perfect.

All the pro-am spots and sponsorships are sold. The field will include several former major championship winners. The CCJ course is in pristine condition.

Indeed, it appears that this is the year it all comes together for the event Sports Illustrated once dubbed “the little golf tournament that could.”

No matter who wins the tournament, the big winner will be Mississippi charities, including Blair E. Batson Children's Hospital, which last year reaped more than $1.1 million from the event.

What follows is a short history lesson about the tournament that has been called the Magnolia State Classic, The Deposit Guaranty Classic, the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, the Viking Classic, the True South Classic, and finally the Sanderson Farms Championship.

Herschel Walker is among the celebrities who will play in Wednesday's pro-am. Back in the early days, in Hattiesburg, the pro-am was the social event of the year and attracted many stars from Hollywood and professional sports. Hattiesburg schools closed for the day and massive crowds came out for the day.

Clint Eastwood played there and so did Mickey Mantle. Joe DiMaggio took part, as did Glen Campbell, Phil Harris, Dizzy Dean, Charley Pride and many, many more. Clint Eastwood finally gave up and quit because of the teenyboppers who were running across the fairway and picking up his golf balls as souvenirs.

Ol' Diz shot a 75 on his own ball in the pro-am, hitting a slice that started on the left tree line and usually ended up in the middle of the fairway. When a fan asked him about his slice, he laughed and said, “Podnuh, you'd slice it, too, if you had to swing around this belly.”

For years, we were told that Dean Martin was coming to play in the pro-am, but Dino never made it. One time, the explanation, never confirmed, was that he had been served divorce papers on the tarmac at the airport as he was about to catch the private flight to Hattiesburg.

Several of golf's greatest players in history participated before they became famous: Johnny Miller and Tom Watson both played in Hattiesburg in their early 20s. The late Payne Stewart won at Hattiesburg before he started wearing knickers. Jim Gallagher, Jr. won one of the many rain-shortened events.

Surely one of the most popular-ever players to compete was Chi Chi Rodriguez, who wielded his putter like a sword and who made even bogeys look like fun.

After that first Magnolia State Classic, the tournament was played opposite The Masters for the next 25 years. It has also been played opposite the British Open, the Tour Championship, the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup and various World Golf Championship (WGC) events.

This year, it is opposite the WGC event, played in Shanghai, China, where most of the world's top-ranked players will compete.

One, William McGirt, who finished second here last year and won Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament this summer, decided not to make the trip to China. Instead, he will take the week off and play here in Wednesday's pro-am. PGA rules prohibit McGirt playing in the Sanderson if he is eligible for the WGC event. McGirt doesn't want to fly 12 hours both ways to China and he does want to support the tournament here. So, he'll play in the pro-am only.

In the 48-year history of Mississippi's only PGA event, that's a first.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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