By Billy Watkins
A quote never before heard at the Sanderson Farms Championship came Thursday from Sepp Straka, originally from Austria and a former Georgia Bulldog.
“I almost froze to death,” said Straka, who teed off in the first round at 8:33 a.m. at the Country Club of Jackson. It was 51 degrees at the time. “I didn’t take my sweater off until the seventh hole.”
Yes, the weather was cool for this time of year in Mississippi — breezy and struggling to break 70 in the afternoon.
“I’m not complaining,” said Hattiesburg’s Davis Riley, a second-year PGA Tour member. “I love the cool weather.”
Riley’s 6-under 66 has him tied for the lead with North Carolina native Will Gordon.
Seven players are one shot back: Christian Bezuidenhout, Mark Hubbard, Thomas Detry, Trevor Cone, Andrew Putnam, Brandon Matthews and Kevin Yu.
Defending champion Sam Burns, who was a member of last weekend’s victorious U.S. President’s Cup team in Charlotte, shot a 2-under 70.
Burns had the perfect excuse not to play this week following the emotional win. But there is something special about the golf course where you earned your first PGA Tour victory.
“This tournament means a lot to me, like you said,” Burns explained. “It’s close to home (Shreveport), and I enjoy coming back here. I look forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces this week. And I’ve gotten to know a lot of the Sanderson Farms family really well.”
Often times, tournaments played on home ground bring extra challenges. Players sometime press, feeling the need to play well in front of family and friends. And Riley has a bunch of them here this week.
“I think that’s probably why I haven’t played my best golf here in the past — just because it’s right down the road,” Riley said. “I want to perform (for them). It would be a really, really special tournament to win.
“I just have to take it day by day and treat it like every other tournament. It’s easy to put that added pressure on yourself, but I think that hinders you from playing your best golf.”
Riley qualified for the 2021-22 FedExCup Playoffs as a rookie. He also came oh-so-close to getting his first victory, losing in a playoff in March to Burns at the Valspar in Palm Harbor, Fla.
Those experiences boosted his confidence.
“I felt like I turned a page at the Valspar,” Riley said. “It’s one of those things that in the back of my head I felt like I could do, get up there and have a chance to win a golf tournament. Ever since then you get that taste of getting so close to victory, you just want to get back as soon as possible.”
In addition to Riley, five Mississippians played in the first round. Hayden Buckley of Tupelo shot a 1-under, 70. The others struggled.
Chad Ramey of Fulton — already a winner on the PGA Tour — shot a 77, as did Wilson Furr of Jackson and state amateur champion Brice Wilkerson of Madison. Joseph Hanko, a PGA Section Champion from Columbus, finished with an 84.
Play continues through Sunday. The winner will take home a little more than $1.4 million, along with 500 FedExCup points.