Sanderson Farms Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
DREAMS really do come true on the PGA Tour. Just ask Cameron Champ. Two years ago, he was an amateur - a very, very good amateur, mind you - dreaming of making his way as a tour professional. Twelve months ago, he won the Sanderson Farms Championship at the age of 23 in just his second start as a PGA Tour member.
And boy, did he do it in some style. After stumbling over the front nine and looking like he was going to miss out, Champ birdied five of his final six holes for a four-shot victory over Corey Conners. Champ shot a final-round 68 to finish at 21-under 267, the lowest score in the five editions of the Sanderson Farms at the Country Club of Jackson.
Remarkably, he very nearly didn’t turn professional. He planned to finish his senior season at Texas A&M if he didn’t advance through the second stage of the 2017 Web.com Tour Q-School. A third-round 75 left him outside the cut line with one round remaining but he finished the event with a 68, including a birdie at the last, to advance to the final stage with three shots to spare. “It’s pretty unreal,” he said. “I can think back to second stage when I kind of almost choked with three holes to go. I made a great putt on 17 to move on to finals.”
Advancing to Q-School’s final stage guaranteed him Web.com Tour status for 2018. He finished sixth on the money list, including a win at the Utah Championship, to earn his TOUR card. He has come a long way since then. His victory at the Sanderson gave him an exemption that effectively lasts for almost three years, right through to the end of the 2000-21 season. It also guaranteed him places at the Players Championship, Sentry Tournament of Champions, US PGA Championship and all the PGA Tour's invitational events.
He has been a breath of fresh air as he was able to set his schedule instead of thinking about the reshuffle and keeping his card. He dominated the Country Club of Jackson’s back nine, which features two par-5s (Nos. 11 and 13) and the drivable, par-4 15th hole. He was 16 under on the course’s inward half and didn’t make a bogey.
Champ, an African American, has a style that all his own and he hits the ball a country mile. He finished first in driving distance, averaging 308 yards on all holes and an astonishing 334 yards on the measured holes. He was second in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, as well. Champ also finished second in Strokes Gained: Putting (+2.27 per round) and ninth in greens hit (55 of 72), despite hitting just 11 in the final round. And it didn’t stop there. He finished in the top 11 in four of his next five events before injury interrupted his progress.
Champ struggled when he returned to action. He missed 11 cuts, but he finished the season in 62nd place in the FedEx Cup standings - not a bad start for a rookie. He goes into the new season fully fit and raring to go.
He has worked with Sean Foley since he was 14 and is the longest driver on tour with a 317.1-yard average. During the 2018 Web.com tour season, Champ averaged an incredible 343.1 yards off the tee and led the 2017 US Open in driving distance at 337 yards.
And he plans to use his status to help and encourage young golfers, especially those from an African American background. Last year his family launched the Cameron Champ Foundation, which is assuming operation of the 9-hole Foothill Golf Course just outside Sacramento, where Champ frequently played as a child. The foundation plans to renovate the course’s clubhouse, adding classrooms where minority and low-income youth can take STEM classes and earn free golf equipment and time on the course. The operating lease requires the foundation to pay a token $790 a month to the local recreation district, and the foundation has pledged to cover the cost of the planned improvements as it builds its resources.
Champ dreams of a day when his foundation can contribute millions to help at-risk youth, much as Tiger Woods’ foundation has over the past two decades. He also would like to open a school to offer low-income students a top-flight education and a shot at college scholarship money, like the one LeBron James, another of his sports heroes, founded last year in Akron, Ohio.
Champ said the desire to both excel in golf and give back to his community comes directly from his grandfather, Mack, and the racism he endured in the past. “Overall, there has definitely been progress in the country. I mean, from the ’60s to now, things have undoubtedly improved,” he said. “Still, there are still a lot of issues in our country, and Grandpa has seen some of that. Grandpa is probably the most kind-hearted, forgiving man I know. Just knowing what he’s been through puts a little chip on my shoulder and motivated me to do as good, and as much good, as I can while Pops is still alive. Obviously, a dream for me would be for me to win with him there.”
Mack, 77, was at home in Sacramento recovering from a kidney transplant when his grandson won at Sanderson, but he followed every stroke on television. By the time Champ and his dad were embracing on the 18th green, his grandfather was on the phone to share the moment. “We did it for you, Grandpa,” they said. “We did it for you.”
Grandpa surely won’t have to wait long to celebrate another victory with his big-hearted grandson.
Scottie Scheffler. Watch this youngster go
Cameron Champ. Will love returning here
Brandt Snedeker. Great short game
Scottie Scheffler. Could be a real superstar
Cameron Champ. Hugely entertaining
Brandt Snedeker. Fully fit once again
Cameron Smith. Needs to start winning some tournaments
Jason Dufner. In need of a few big weeks
Zach Johnson. Aiming to put a dreadful year behind him
Kyle Stanley. One of the best swings on tour
Aaron Wise. Needs to find a way to kick on
Jimmy Walker. Trying to find his best form again
Kevin Streelman. Golfer capable of going really low
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