MADISON — When the Magnolia Classic was held in Hattiesburg in April, it rained almost every year, and sometimes every day of the four-day tournament. When Deposit Guaranty Bank assumed title sponsorship of the PGA event and moved the tournament to Jackson in July, the weather was blistering hot — and rainy.
When the Southern Farm Bureau took over title sponsorship and the dates were changed to late October, hoping the only problem would be the sound of crunching leaves, it rained. Last year, 13 inches of rain in five weeks, including four inches the final weekend of the tournament, soaked the area.
This year, the weather-plagued Southern Farm Bureau Classic will be held Sept. 29 to Oct. 5 at Annandale Golf Club in Madison. It will mark the ninth consecutive year of tournament play on the Jack Nicklaus-designed, 7,199-yard golf course. The Weather Channel has predicted partly cloudy, 85-degree days, with 51% relative humidity.
More than 100,000 spectators are expected to watch the winner of the 36th Classic take home $540,000, or 18%, of a $3-million purse, a vast improvement from the first tournament, which yielded a $20,000-purse and only 20,000 spectators.
Last year, Luke Donald, a 24-year old rookie from England, became the 18th first-time PGA tour winner at the Classic when he finished with a total score of 201, followed by Deane Pappas with 202 and Brad Elder with 203. The tournament was shortened to 54 holes when the final round was canceled because of unplayable conditions.
“A win is a win and I’ll take it,” Donald told the Associated Press. “I would have loved to have done it over 72 holes. But it was out of our control so there was nothing I could do.”
The decision on changing the tournament dates was a simple one to make. Last year, SFBC officials were told to move the event four weeks earlier or risk losing it.
“We obviously had some concerns about the date change,” said Robert Morgan, the tournament’s only executive director in its 36-year history. “We’d established ourselves and had created a great field opposite the tour championship, but our concerns have been pretty well put to rest because the field is shaping up even better than last year’s.”
“We weren’t happy at first,” admitted John Cossar, president of Century Club Charities. “But the new date is such a better date for several reasons. With a month to go in the tournament season, PGA players are making all sorts of moves to get into the top money positions. It looks like we’ll have 35 golfers that have already made a million dollars this year. Five years ago, that was unheard of.”
Also, the tournament will be played during daylight savings time, said Cossar.
“When we played the Pro Am late in October, we were teeing off in the dark for the early morning rounds,” he said. “Now we’ve got the hour of daylight back, which is going to give us a bigger field.”
For the past four years, the Classic was played opposite the tour championship as one of the last PGA tour calendar events. Last year, the Tampa Bay Classic occupied the new calendar spot.
“This is something we don’t ever need to lose,” said Cossar. “A lot of major cities in this country much larger than Jackson, like Pittsburgh and Seattle, would love to take our event tomorrow.”
Because of scheduling conflicts, the Classic will not be televised on The Golf Channel, but will hopefully return to TV next year.
This year’s tournament slogan, “The Big Boys Are Back,” aptly describes the field of big name players committed to play the PGA event.
Bernhard Langer, the two-time Masters champion from Germany, winner of 66 international events, and the European captain for next year’s Ryder Cup matches in Michigan, will make his first appearance at the Classic.
PGA heavyweights including former PGA and British Open champion John Daly, who hasn’t played the Classic since 2000, 1996 PGA championship winner Mark Brooks, two-time Classic champion Brian Henninger, 2002 U.S. Amateur champion Ricky Barnes, and defending champion Donald will compete in the 132-spot field against Mississippians including 1985 Classic champion Jim Gallagher of Greenwood, Vance Veazey of Senatobia, Glen Hnatiuk, formerly of Hattiesburg, Glen Day, formerly of Poplarville, Heath Slocum, formerly of Bovina, and Rett Crowder of Jackson, four-time State Open and six-time State Am champ.
“One of the barometers we use to determine strength of field is by calculating the number of players committed from the top 125 money list,” said Morgan. “Last year, 30 days out, we had 50 players in that category. This year, we’re pretty well up to speed, especially since the big names usually don’t commit until two weeks out.”
The economic impact to Mississippi, expected to reach $15 million this year, may be surpassed by the image impact the Classic brings to the state, said Morgan.
“When we started in 1968, we were trying to create a positive image of Mississippi in our own little way,” said Morgan. “We’ve done that. It’s certainly a positive image when we’re the only PGA tour event in the radius of New Orleans, Memphis and Atlanta, and we’re probably in the smallest market of any other PGA tour event in the country.”
PGA golfers often tell Morgan that they love to come to Jackson partly because of the area’s Southern hospitality.
“They tell me they like the golf course, and they like that it’s a much different atmosphere than in larger markets they play,” he said.
Wanda Collier-Wilson, executive director of the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the prestigious tournament draws golfing enthusiasts from across the state, and potentially means hotel stays and restaurant meals throughout the Jackson area.
“Any time a major sports event comes to a city, any city, it is a boost to that city’s marketability as a tourism destination,” she said.
Local corporate support
“When we went to the Southern Farm Bureau people for sponsorship, they only said two things: keep it in Mississippi and keep the charities going up,” said Cossar. “They really have to hit their hip hard to support this tournament and we can’t be more appreciative of them.”
Bobby Waters, executive vice president and CEO of Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company, said the company’s agents and employees take great pride in sponsoring the event.
“Each year, I get letters from agents outside Mississippi saying they follow the tournament and are very proud that we are the title sponsors,” he said. “Our employees take great pride in the increased recognition we receive locally for being good corporate citizens.”
Southern Farm Bureau Casualty co-sponsors the event.
“If Southern Farm Bureau had not agreed to become the title sponsor, this event could have moved to another location outside our state,” said Waters. “Both sponsoring companies were well aware of the charitable contributions the tournament brings, and we did not want to lose that opportunity. It has given very favorable coverage to the state of Mississippi.”
“We’re fortunate to have great corporate support,” said Cossar. “Some tournaments around the country are playing without corporate sponsorships due to the economy and corporate bankruptcies.”
Charity dollars are funneled through Century Club Charities and for the third consecutive year, the Classic will feature Birdies for Charity, a fundraiser based on pledges per birdie made during the tournament. Last year, $704,000 was raised for Mississippi charities. Of that, $431,500 was from Birdies for Charity, said technical coordinator Russ Rutland
boxes are a bargain this year, only $6,000, said Morgan.
“We cut a little better deal with the contractor and are passing the savings along,” he said, who said 16 had been sold this year compared to 14 sold last year.
What to watch
Cosmetic changes to the golf course i