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Sanderson tourney is run like a business ‘with a heart’

Steve Jenks

Steve Jent directs the tournament’s staff year-round.

By JACK WEATHERLY

The Sanderson Farms Championship pumps about $23 million a year into the economy of the Jackson area and the rest of Mississippi.

In professional golf and business, those things don’t just happen.

Such results take a lot of planning and execution.

“It is truly full-time, year-round,” said Steve Jent, tournament executive director who has a five-person staff.

The commitment to establish a staff came after Sanderson Farms became the title sponsor in 2013, a signal from the Laurel-based poultry giant that it wanted a professional operation from the get-go.

This year’s tourney started Monday and is scheduled to end Sunday.

“We work 51 weeks a year to make sure this one week gets carried out,” he said. In fact, the team started working two months ago on the 2017 tournament, he said.

“The PGA tour is a little bit of the circus comes to town. We put up tents and then we tear it all down.”

This is the third year Jent has directed the Jackson tourney. He came from the Wyndham Championship, formerly the Greensboro (N.C.) Open, where he was director of sales.

Joe Sanderson

Joe Sanderson checks things out from a grandstand on the 18th hole.

“We are a small business, a 501c3 putting on an event for charity.”

The Blair Batson Children’s Hospital is the primary recipient of proceeds from the event, through the Friends of Children’s Hospital, which has received $11 million and other charities since 1994. Last year, Friends received $1.15 million.

The Sanderson Championship is the same week as the World Golf Championship in China, which grabs the top 50 players in the world.

“We’re a small market, but our goal is still to be the best,” Jent said.

The winner of the Sanderson will get $756,000 of the $4.2 million purse and a two-year exemption from qualifying for a PGA event, Jent said.

The Mississippi stop on the tour might’ve disappeared after Viking Range pulled its sponsorship following the 2011 championship.

“That would have been a black eye for Mississippi,” said Joe Sanderson, chief executive officer and chairman of the board.

The 2012 tourney was patched together under the name True South Classic.

Gov. Phil Bryant called Sanderson in January 2013 and asked if the company would consider taking the lead.

“I immediately thought: ‘Our target audience is women 25 to 65. Golf Channel and women 25 to 65 makes no sense.’”

The CEO told the board of the publicly traded company in January that the proposition had been made, though he was not ready to make a proposal.

Over the next month, he pondered the request long and hard.

Then it occurred to him that Sanderson Farms had never done any public relations or corporate profile ads.

“We’d never done anything PR-wise. We’d done a lot of consumer advertising.”

He also pondered the loss of proceeds from the tournament to the Children’s Hospital.

Sanderson recommended it to his board the next month, and the nation’s third-largest poultry producer took it on.

“We told the governor and Century Clubs Charities we’d try it on a one-year basis to see if it fit.”

“We had to be ready by July,” he said Monday in the company’s white-tent “chalet” attached to one of the grandstands on the 18th green, one of a number of such corporately-sponsored tents that have sprouted along the fairways of the 7,421-yard course.

“We tried it and it felt good. So we made a deal. . . that we would take it on for three years and move it to the fall. We’d rather compete against football than we had against 100-degree temperatures and thunderstorms.”

The poultry producer found that its customers – those who buy its chicken on the commercial scale – enjoy participating in the tournament.

And they show it. For instance, John Soules Foods of Tyler, Texas, a leading producer of fajitas, sponsored the Monday pro-am.

Allen Exploration of Dallas, Texas, sponsored the Wednesday pro-am for the second time. Allen had been a vendor for Sysco, the world’s largest food services firm, which is a major customer for Sanderson.

In both cases, the companies have “a heart for the hospital,” Sanderson said. As do Trustmark and BankPlus, also major sponsors, he added.

Sanderson put its heart and money where its mouth is and committed in 2014 to a 10-year extension at the Jackson Country Club after this year’s tournament.

Allen Exploration followed that example, announcing on Wednesday that it will sponsor the pro-am through 2016.

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About Jack Weatherly

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