JACKSON, Miss. – Instead of a pro-am pairing party, the Sanderson Farms Championship had a COVID-19 test party.
“We gave everybody an hour window where they could come and be tested, 15-minute results and 100 percent negatives and everybody’s here,” said Steve Jent, tournament director. “We’re just trying to turn lemons into lemonade.”
The PGA Tour resumed pro-ams last week at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic, following in the footsteps of PGA Tour Champions and Korn Ferry Tour, which first did so at the Ally Challenge and Price Cutter Charity Championship, respectively, in July.
Gone is hobnobbing amongst pros the night before at the draw party, the chummy team photo and the fist bump celebration for a birdie putt.
“It was totally different,” said Sebastian Muñoz, the defending champion of the Sanderson Farms Championship, who played with the chancellor of Ole Miss. “They’re having to take their bags and not have any caddies around, so my caddie had to rake all the bunkers, so he was not loving it. But it was good, nine holes actually played pretty fast. It was like under two and a half hours, which for a pro-am is really good, and just different but good in a sense.”
The biggest change of all may have been amateurs using push carts. In an effort to limit the number of people on site, caddies for the participants were eliminated this year.
“We’ve always done a walking pro-am and cart-path only is no fun, so, how do we do it without caddies? I thought, why not push carts,” Jent said. “I ordered 250 (from Bag Boy). You can’t find these things. They are not to be found. The local Edwin Watts has asked me if they can buy some.”
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PGA Tour rules allow a maximum of 28 teams during a Monday pro-am and 52 teams on Wednesday. The pro-am was sold out before the COVID-19 shutdown. Jent said courses in Mississippi remained open, and he worked with Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state’s chief medical officer, to develop a plan, which was submitted to the Tour and received approval from the players.
Tour veteran Peter Jacobsen long has contended that Wednesday is the most important day of the week on Tour because of the money generated for local charities. Jent said the Sanderson Farms Championship raised $1.6 million for charity in 2016, with $1.3 million earmarked for Batson Children’s Hospital near downtown, and 30-to-40 other non-profits such as First Tee and Make-A-Wish Foundation splitting the other $300,000. The loss of revenue due to no spectators or corporate hospitality is significant.
“Maybe we’ll get close to halfway there,” Jent said, referencing last year’s $1.6 million as a benchmark. “Without the pro-am, we’d have been close to break-even so having it is a big impact.”
A cool story is emerging at PGA Tour tournaments across the country as corporate partners have continued to make charitable giving a priority even if they aren’t able to enjoy wining and dining clients in their corporate chalets.
“A lot of sponsors for the pro-am couldn’t come because of corporate travel restrictions. Several that didn’t participate donated some or all of their fee to support the local hospital,” Jent said.
Nathan Grube, tournament director of the Travelers Championship, echoed that sentiment: “We had sponsor after sponsor say we understand what the tournament is about. Take our entire sponsorship fee and use it for charity.”
Jent said some of his corporate guests were renting out space at restaurants to do team dinners in smaller groups or grabbing take out and going back to their hotels. “We told them you need to semi-self-quarantine before you come here,” he said.
On Monday, 60 golfers participated in a pro-am at the Country Club of Jackson and 105 amateurs did so on Wednesday. As for the push carts, they were a big hit. Pro Bo Van Pelt joined his amateurs and used one on Monday. The amateur gift package included a Callaway gift card, but participants were given an option of keeping their cart in exchange for a reduced amount on their gift card – the tournament also offered to ship the cart to them.
“I think the push cart could be the future of the pro-am,” Jent said. “I think we showed we can safely do a pro-am and still give them a chance to participate. My message to my fellow tournament directors is you can do this. It’s just a little extra effort but you can do this.”