MARTY JAMES Napa Valley Register
As the tournament executive director of the Safeway Open, Jeff Sanders spends time each year taking a close look at college golf programs in the Bay Area and at some of the top players around Northern California, searching to see if there might be someone out there who has the talent to play on a sponsor’s invitation at the annual PGA Tour event at Silverado Resort and Spa.
Over the years, the Safeway Open has awarded these coveted spots to Collin Morikawa of UC Berkeley in 2016 and to both Maverick McNealy of Stanford and Cameron Champ of Texas A&M in 2017.
“It’s been fun to watch them become great players on the PGA Tour,” said Sanders, the president of Lagardere Sports North American Golf Event Division. Lagardere Sports is the event’s management company.
“One of my responsibilities as an executive director is to identify that local talent and give them an opportunity to play. A lot of times, these young players don’t have an opportunity to show their game. By giving them a sponsor invitation, you’re doing that. And then it’s up to the player to perform.”
Champ put on a standout performance on the very tough and challenging North Course at Silverado last month, drawing on the support of so many in the gallery – including family and friends – from his hometown of Sacramento while also keeping his thoughts on his grandfather, Mack Ray Champ, who has stage IV stomach cancer and is in hospice.
Cameron Champ closed with a birdie on the par-5 18th hole after smashing a drive that traveled 369 yards and won the Safeway Open, holding off Adam Hadwin by one shot, in a dramatic final-round finish to the $6.6 million event, presented by Chevron.
“I’m hoping that this will be a springboard for him,” said tournament host Johnny Miller, a World Golf Hall of Fame member and one of Silverado’s owners. “He has a chance, if he can just improve a little bit, to be a superstar on Tour.”
Champ won for the second time in his career, as he got up and down from off the 18th green, hitting a pitch shot to just over three feet of the pin and then making the birdie putt, capping a round of 69 and a week in which he had a 17-under 271 total for the four days. Champ, the 54-hole leader, earned $1.188 million.
“To give him a sponsor invitation, nobody knew he was going to come out and win on the PGA Tour,” said Sanders. “We’re really proud of Cameron. He’s worked really hard to get to be a great player. We sure feel good about helping him get his start at the Safeway Open – and then having it lead to him winning on the Tour. He hits the ball so far – it’s unbelievable. A beautiful golf swing.”
An emotional Champ – who learned about the game at a very young age from his grandfather at the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento – expressed his thanks and appreciation to Sanders, for giving him a chance to play at Silverado two years ago. This was his third appearance at the Safeway Open.
“He hadn’t forgotten that. It was nice to hear that,” said Sanders. “Of course, he was just over the moon happy with his win and what it did for his grandfather.
“He comes from a great family. He was brought up with respect and honor. He honors his family – his father, his grandfather. He is first class in my book, all the way.
“I’m rooting for him. He’s going to be a great defending champion.”
Champ was congratulated by his father, Jeff Champ, and his caddie, Kurt Kowaluk. It was only Champ’s 35th PGA Tour start. The victory gets him into the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua on Maui, Hawaii (Jan. 2-5) and the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club (April 9-12).
He put himself into immediate contention, opening with a 67 at the Safeway Open, and followed it up with rounds of 68 and 67 to take a three-shot lead heading into the final round.
“One of the things that I love about PGA Tour golf is the emotion that’s involved – when a young player gets a win, especially in his own backyard, the way that Cameron did, in such championship style, birdieing the last hole, and persevering all the way to the end, and then the emotion around his father giving him a big hug and his grandfather watching on TV,” said Sanders.
“It was a world-class story that happened in Napa.”
It was a week in which there were record crowds for the Safeway Open Pro-Am, which featured Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and Chef Thomas Keller, and also the third round.
Tony Romo, the lead analyst for CBS Sports’ NFL coverage and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, played on a sponsor invitation and missed the 36-hole cut, shooting rounds of 70 and 78 as an amateur.
Champ, one of five nominees for the Tour’s Rookie of the Year award for the 2018-19 season, was exceptional with his short game and made big putts in the final round. He had to hold on after leading by five shots at one time. He led the field for the week in both driving distance (337.1) and in scrambling (career-best 84.2 percent).
“This is kind of my home event. To have so many family and friends here, it’s just been awesome,” said Champ, whose first win came at the Sanderson Farms Championship as a rookie in October of 2018 at the Country Club of Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi.
So far this season, Champ tied for 28th at the Sanderson Farms Championship, missed the cut at Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, and tied for 23rd at the Houston Open.
The Safeway Open had its strongest field, with 15 of the top 30 players in the Official World Golf Ranking entered.
“The tournament is progressing really nice,” said Miller. “All in all, it was a great week.”
The tournament is the third event of the 2019-2020 schedule.
“The course has handled the scoring pretty well,” said Miller, a 25-time champion on the PGA Tour, with major victories at the 1973 U.S. Open and the 1976 Open Championship. “This year was the least amount of rough we’ve had in the history of the tournament. We had very short rough.
“The course is a good championship course, a good test. They’re tough greens. They’re not shooting 25-under-par or anything.”
Miller, the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 1974, redesigned the par-72, 7,166-yard North Course in 2011.
“The stars aligned this year, with no Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup the week before, for the first time in four years,” said Sanders. “Our date being third out the blocks, instead of first, really helped us get a great field. People really enjoyed the music shows again this year.
“The combination of a great date, turned into a great field. The weather was the best we’ve had. When you put it all together, the stars aligned over Silverado this year and everything worked out perfectly.”
The five-year agreement with Safeway as the title sponsor runs through 2020 with the PGA Tour event remaining at Silverado for the duration. Sanders said he is optimistic that the tournament will continue beyond 2020.
“We’re looking forward to the fifth year of our contract,” he said. “We’re looking forward to putting on our best event we’ve ever put on in 2020. I think the word’s getting out that we’ve got a special event, in a great part of the world. Great golf and great music.
“When I think of the event, I think of it as a golf festival. The model works – and it’s been embraced. It takes a little while for people to catch on and experience it and talk about it. We just could not be happier.”
The Safeway Open, televised by Golf Channel, has generated over $8 million for charities in the four years.
“We really believe in keeping things super affordable and keeping things fun and having more things to do at our golf events than watching golf only. That keeps people there. It keeps them coming back,” said Sanders.
Sanders’ team includes Matt McEvoy, the tournament director.
“I’m very proud of Matt McEvoy and the job he has done as tournament director of the Safeway Open. Matt has a bright future in the business,” said Sanders. “He’s worked really hard … to make us all proud of the Safeway Open.”
The tournament has support from 1,400 volunteers.