This time last year, I did the Justin Thomas thing and made a list of goals that I wanted to achieve during the 2018/19 PGA TOUR season. I accomplished 2/11 of them, one of them growing my Twitter following to 500, only thanks to a few choice tweets. But one of the goals that I still thought was important was to travel outside of New Orleans to a golf tournament. Seems easy enough, but things tend to slip away from me so I never got around to it. New year, new me, though. I spent the weekend in Jackson, MS to take in the Chicken Championship in its first year as a big boy PGA TOUR event.
The Sanderson is becoming the darling tournament of the internet golf community. The trophy is a cock. The logo is subtle and actually looks cool. The field has showcased some of the best up and coming talent on tour. The course produces some surprisingly exciting golf shots. But the Sanderson has a long way to go before it is crowned the cock of the walk of the smaller tournaments.
Admittedly, the list of golf tournament venues that I have visited is short. Count on one hand short. I’ve been to the Masters a couple times. I worked at Black Creek Club for a Nationwide event in like 2009. I’ve been to the Heritage, and I have been all over the Zurich the past three years. I think that holding the Sanderson to the same standards as the Heritage and the Zurich is a fair assessment though, and that in its ideal world, the Sanderson would be a perfect combination of the two.
I watched minimal tournament coverage on TV so this review is primarily focused on the on-course setup. However, Golf Channel obviously did not have its A-Team onsite. This was just outrageous.
— Cart Path Only (@nocartsplease) September 20, 2019
Also during a tour player’s birdie putt, one of the boom-mic guys’ text alert went off. Have to tidy that up, Golf Channel.
On Jackson local Will Bardwell’s site, he quotes tournament director Steve Jent regarding the importance of word of mouth among players and trying to attract bigger names to his event.
“I think it’s everything that goes into it,” tournament director Steve Jent said. “Was it easy to get in and out? How was the food? How were you treated?”
That criteria that Jent lays out is absolutely important to the tour pros. And from all accounts I’ve seen and heard, the accommodations at the Country Club of Jackson were nothing short of fantastic. And that’s a great way to entice big name PGA TOUR players to travel to central Mississippi on their way to Napa. That same criteria was not extended to the general admission fan, however.
“Was it easy to get in and out?”
The public parking including in the price of general admission ticket is in the parking lot of nearby North Park mall. Much like the Zurich, they shuttle you from the parking lot to the tournament grounds. Between waiting on the tour bus to fill till the time it takes to wind through the neighborhoods and community of the Country Club of Jackson, it takes anywhere from 20-40 minutes to arrive at the course. The bus drops you off at the side of the grounds, along the edge of the golf course that isn’t used for the tournament. I am a semi-healthy adult male. It isn’t going to kill me to walk long distances. But the older crowd doing the Mississippi Half-Step could definitely use an easier way in. There were several carts helping out the less mobile which brings me to my next point.
I’ve worked a professional golf tournament before. It was a small Nationwide event but I do have some experience in what needs to go in to tending to a golf course during an event. So I understand the need for some golf carts for rules officials and staff. The Sanderson was running a continuous fleet of carts around the course to the point where I heard people commenting and complaining about them. When I worked the Nationwide event we had less than 10 carts on the course. These dudes had their entire cart barn out for the weekend.
My personal biggest concern with the Sanderson, though, was the lack of amenities for the general admission. There are private tents littered all around the course with all different type of entrance requirements that wouldn’t let ya boy in. There was the PXG sponsored Outpost, the Country Club of Jackson Platform, the Trophy Club, the Bank Plus Fan Pavilion, the Sanderson Farms Box, and the 18th Green Chalets. I’ve been lucky enough to know people to get me into the boxes at the Zurich and the Heritage, but I always felt like I was missing out on the action when I was in the boxes at those tournaments. The Sanderson was set up to where you not only felt left out for not being in the boxes, but that you could not even enjoy the tournament properly without having access to their numerous boxes, pavilions, tents, or chalets. There are maybe three accessible concession stands on the course. They sell beer and can serve up most any mixed drink you’d like, but there’s no specialty cocktails (besides a Bloody Mary) that the general public can get. I know it’s New Orleans but I love the John Daly’s available at every concession stand and the frozen margaritas at the main pavilion at the Zurich.
“How was the food?”
The only food options available at the concession stands I went to were candy, pretzels, or Uncrustable PB&J’s. We’re at a chicken tournament. There should be an endless supply of chicken sandwiches and/or chicken fingers. They didn’t. They didn’t even have hot dogs. There were remnants of where there might have been fried chicken, pimento cheese, and chicken salad sandwiches, but each concession stand I visited were all out on Saturday and Sunday. That might be a good sign for the attendance numbers at the Sanderson, but you can’t run out of chicken products when you own the plant down the road.
It just felt very exclusive to me. If you’re following a group that’s coming up 18, you have to walk around 3 boxes/pavilions/chalets to get to the 18 green grandstand in order to watch the group finish up. I understand that sponsors are the ones that ensure that the tournament is successful, but if the Sanderson is going to succeed with the general public it needs to cater to its general admission. The Sanderson has been a place where rising PGA stars are rewarded with being first time winners. It should cater to the general public and no-named attendees in the same way it does to its players.
“How were you treated?”
My complaints with the Sanderson come from a place where I can see the potential. It could be the biggest, little event on tour. The people of Jackson came out in droves during one of the biggest college football Saturdays this year. The fans were awesome. They followed the lesser known pairings. They were respectful to the players and to the visitors. Even if I couldn’t house a chicken sandwich every hour I still had a great time. But I still think it has a long way to go to be the event that the fans of the PGA TOUR and the people of Mississippi so desperately deserve.