When Randy Watkins took over as tournament director of the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in April, he had his work cut out for him.
Even though former director Ed McEnroe had done much of the footwork for the 39th-annual event, to be held September 28 through October 3 at Annandale Golf Club in Madison County, Watkins faced several challenges, including not having a title sponsor after the 2006 tournament. Contracts for the four presenting sponsors were set to expire October 1.
No problem. On August 10, Watkins announced that Greenwood-based Viking Range Corporation had signed on as title sponsor of Mississippi’s premier PGA event through 2010, committing nearly $2 million annually and ensuring continued worldwide television coverage. The tournament will be called the Viking Magnolia Classic, honoring the original name. BankPlus, Canadian National, Entergy Mississippi and Mississippi Development Authority signed on as presenting sponsors.
“For 2006, we’re in great shape,” said Watkins. “We’re 93% sold, right on schedule.”
Even though Watkins already has 150 commitments for 132 spots, he headed to Colorado earlier this month to catch up with the PGA Tour, with a hit list of players to recruit in hand. Heath Slocum, who took home $540,000 for winning last year’s Classic by two strokes on the par-72, 7,199-yard course, has committed to play again.
The purse, $3 million this year, jumps significantly to $3.5 million in 2007.
Watkins is also making a move to attract younger golfers with several new tournament events. On Tuesday during tournament week, Edwin Watts Golf Shop and the Mississippi Junior Golf Association (MJGA) will host a Junior Pro-Am event allowing junior golfers to play a round with PGA tour pros. Thirty junior golfers will be selected through the MJGA summer points race system; a few others will be selected via an open qualifier.
“We think this event is really big,” said Watkins. “Edwin Watts has just done a dynamite job not only sponsoring the event, but also putting up really nice gift bags full of golf balls, tees, clubs, and other prizes.”
Junior golfers also staff a welcome center at the entrance, which will feature Mississippi wares.
“And the third new thing is — this is a favorite for some people on our staff — on number 17, we’ve created what’s going to be called The Roughhouse, a 30-foot by 80-foot pavilion sponsored by The Rouge, The Mean Mallard and The Sportsman’s Line, and we’re going to create an interactive wild outdoors area geared toward youth. It’s going to be loud and crazy and fun. Number 17 is one of Annandale’s most beautiful holes, sitting right on the lake, and we’re real thrilled about that development.”
To man the weeklong event, Watkins has nearly 1,000 volunteers on standby. Century Club Charities, which has generated nearly $4 million to charities statewide since 1986, is on track for a record year, particularly through its Birdies for Charities Program.
Since taking over the role four months ago from McEnroe, who left to become director of the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., tournament activity has taken a chunk of time for Watkins, a longtime fixture in Mississippi golfing who has built a business that extends to Whisper Lake Country Club, Patrick Farms Golf Club and Randy Watkins Golf Cars.
“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s busier than I imagined. It’s been a good ride so far, but the clock is ticking now. The golf course at Annandale looks great and if we can get good weather, we’ll have a great week.”
The Hattiesburg Country Club — and longtime executive director Robert Morgan — birthed the PGA event in the spring of 1968 as the Magnolia Classic. In 1986, Deposit Guaranty National Bank took over as title sponsor and moved the event to summertime in Jackson. In 1994, the tournament moved to Annandale and to the fall schedule, and Southern Farm Bureau replaced Deposit Guaranty as title sponsor in 1999.
“I want to make sure people know they need to come this year,” said Watkins. “They really need to support Southern Farm and thank them for what they’ve done and see all the new stuff we’ve got for everybody. It’s going to be a lot of fun … and a much different looking event.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.