Rick Cleveland

How a Mississippi golf tournament went from ‘little’ to a $4.2M event

Cody Gribble hoisted the Sanderson Farms Championship golf tournament trophy in 2016.
Cody Gribble hoisted the Sanderson Farms Championship golf tournament trophy in 2016. AP file

The 50th Sanderson Farms Championship, as it is now known, will be played next week at the Country Club of Jackson. This is truly amazing when you think about it — and that this tournament has survived.

Over half a century, Mississippi’s one tournament on the PGA Tour has survived, a 100-year flood, apathy, two hurricanes, two different venue changes, more floods, brutal heat, recessions and other economic downturns, five previous sponsors and a whole lot more.

That’s why Sports Illustrated referred to it in 2005 as “the little tournament that could.”

And, boy, was it little when it started.

In 1968, several members of the Hattiesburg Country Club wanted to host a professional tournament on their splendid, pine tree-lined golf course. They gave birth to the Magnolia State Classic, which was called a “PGA satellite tour event” and was played opposite the Colonial Invitational with a total purse of $20,000.

While Billy Casper was winning the Colonial, B.R. “Mac” McClendon, fresh out of LSU, won the Magnolia State Classic and a grand prize of $2,800. Anybody who makes the cut next week will make three times that. The winner will take home close to $800,000.

Thanks to Joe Sanderson and his Laurel-based company that is the nation’s third largest poultry producer, the tournament has grown into a $4.2 million event, televised worldwide by The Golf Channel. The Sanderson Farms Championship has donated millions to Mississippi charities, most prominently the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital at UMMC in Jackson.

Before Sanderson saved the tournament in 2013, it was known as the Magnolia State Classic (1968-85), the Deposit Guaranty Classic (1986-98), the Southern Farm Bureau Classic (1999-2006), the Viking Classic (2007-11) and the True South Classic (2012).

One aspect that hasn’t changed over all those years is this: Youth is usually served.

Last year, former Texas Longhorn Cody Gribble, playing in his second PGA Tour event, shot a final round 65 to win by four shots. Gribble was the third straight first-time winner and the fourth in six years.

Back in the beginning, when the tournament was played at the Hattiesburg Country Club, it was billed as the tournament where you could watch the PGA Tour’s future stars. It surely has been that.

Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, the late Payne Stewart and so many more of the tour’s legends honed their skills in Mississippi’s tournament before they became household names. Stewart won it in 1982 before he started wearing his trademark knickers.

So many memories: When Watson played in Hattiesburg, he sported a mustache. When John Daly first played in Hattiesburg, he was skinny. When Roger Maltbie shot a first-round 65 in 1980, he then waited out three days of torrential rains before being declared the winner. Said Malbie of the $4,500 first prize, “I’m not even sure it will even pay my bar tab.”

Amazingly, no memory is more vivid than the one of McClendon winning the very first Magnolia State Classic in ’68. He was fresh out of LSU, having won three straight SEC Championships. The Magnolia was his first start as a pro and, because of rain earlier in the week, he had to play 45 holes on Sunday to win it.

McClendon outlasted 52-year old Pete Fleming in a nine-hole, sudden-death playoff. This correspondent then 15, walked every hole of the playoff after caddying 36 holes earlier in the day. By the time McClendon sank an 18-foot birdie putt on the ninth hole to win it, it was so dark few spectators could see the winning putt and some fans were driving away from the Hattiesburg Country Club with their lights on.

Youth was served that day, but who would ever have guessed that fledgling tournament would grow so old?

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org. Follow him @rick_cleveland on twitter.