Playing in the Safeway Open at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa was a game-time decision for Cameron Champ, who at the age of 24 is one of the bright, young stars in golf.
He didn’t play a practice round on the North Course going into the $6.6 million PGA Tour fall season event. He didn’t play in the Safeway Open Pro-Am either. He didn’t get a look at the set-up of the par-72, 7,166-yard course, which presented the 144-player field with firm, fast conditions, narrow fairways, and very tough greens.
“It was going to be a last‑minute deal,” said Champ, who is from Sacramento and attended Heritage Peak Charter School. “I showed up Thursday and teed it up with no practice round, nothing.”
It was a very emotional week for Champ, whose thoughts have been on family. His grandfather, Mack Ray Champ, the one who introduced Cameron to golf and has had a huge influence in his life, has stage IV stomach cancer and is in hospice.
“I wasn’t even sure if I was going to play,” Cameron Champ said. “We weren’t sure how we were going to hold up. He does good, enjoys the days, but sometimes he’ll mention he’s kind of done. He feels like he doesn’t want to fight anymore.
“I almost broke down on the first hole (Friday). I just tried to focus on the task at hand. Obviously, golf, it’s my career. I love doing it. But it made me realize it’s not the most important thing, that there’s a lot more to life than just golf.”
Mack Ray Champ had some words of encouragement for Cameron prior to the Safeway Open, now in its fourth year.
“He likes to say ‘focus’ a lot. He just said ‘play free,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing,” Cameron Champ said. “It’s never been about him. It’s always been about everyone else. Going through this experience, it’s really opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
Champ was rock-solid for four days at Silverado. Coming down the stretch in the 5 o’clock hour late Sunday, in the final round, he overcame a bogey on No. 17 as he unleashed one of the greatest shots of the week at the par-5, 575-yard 18th hole – a spectacular drive that traveled a whopping 369 yards, leaving him in the middle of the fairway.
Tied for the lead with Adam Hadwin at the time, Champ got up and down from a greenside collection area, making his birdie putt from 3 feet, 8 inches to win the Safeway Open with a 3-under-par 69 in tough, windy conditions.
He celebrated by raising his arms and his putter high in the air and hugged his caddie, Kurt Kowaluk. He was also congratulated by his father, Jeff Champ.
Asked about his thoughts as he looked over his putt on No. 18, Champ said:
“We had a good read. Today, I left myself some testers quite a bit. I just stuck with reading them with a little less break. I knew I wasn’t going to miss that. The feeling I had, it was different. It wasn’t nerves, it was just kind of excitement. I really wasn’t too nervous.”
It was the second PGA Tour win for Champ, who earned $1.188 million and 500 FedExCup points, while also securing spots in the Sentry Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course at Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii (Jan. 2-5) and the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club (April 9-12).
He finished the week at 17-under 271 following rounds of 67, 68, 67 and 69. Hadwin was one shot back and finished in second place after shooting a final-round 67. Marc Leishman was alone in third place. Charles Howell III, Zac Blair and Justin Thomas tied for fourth.
“I’ll say this now: I really feel like this will be, no matter what, even if I never win another tournament again or I win however many, this will definitely be the greatest moment of my golfing career,” said Champ.
Hundreds of spectators followed Champ, who took a three-shot lead into the final round. Many of those fans were from his hometown of Sacramento, the place where he took up the game, thanks to his grandfather helping him out so much with his swing.
“It meant everything. Going through what we’re going through is just nice to have the support. It’s something I’ll always remember,” he said.
“Everything fell into place. I was hitting it well off the tee, which for me I feel like I really feed off that. When I’m hitting it well off the tee, it just flows into every other aspect of my game. My misses are better. I kept it in places where I can get it up and down, so I think it was just the flow.”
Champ was tied for fifth place after the first round and was tied for third place after the second round.
The victory comes in only Champ’s 33rd start on Tour as a professional and he moves to No. 2 in the FedExCup standings. Statistically, he led the Safeway Open field in driving distance (337.1) and in scrambling (career-best 84.2 percent). He birdied Nos. 3, 5, 6, 9 and 18, hit 5-of-14 fairways and 11-of-18 greens while making 26 putts in the final round.
“I hit some good quality chips,” said Champ, who had a five-shot lead at one point Sunday.
Champ, a former Texas A&M star and a 2018 Korn Ferry Tour graduate, chipped in from 14 feet, 11 inches to save par on the 11th hole.
Champ’s father handed Cameron the phone following his win. It was Mack Ray Champ on the phone.
“I know he’s watched it on TV all day. I know ‘Pops’ is fine, but he’ll always fight as hard as he can,” said Cameron.
“It meant everything. It’s been a wild week, extremely wild. I know (Mack Ray Champ) was probably amped up the whole time watching it. Just for him to be able to see me make that putt on 18 on the 72nd hole to win, that will go down as the greatest moment ever in my golfing career.”
It was Champ’s third appearance at the Safeway Open. He failed to make the cut after shooting 2-over in 2017 when he played a sponsor invitation as a senior at Texas A&M. He finished in a tie for 25th last year, shooting 7-under.
Champ won the Sanderson Farms Championship in October of 2018 during his rookie season at the Country Club of Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi. He led the Tour in driving distance (317.9 yards) and finished No. 62 in the FedExCup standings last season.
Mack Ray Champ, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force, has had a lot to do with Cameron’s development in golf, teaching him the swing at an early age and inspiring him to continue in the game.
“He was the one that started me. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent with him,” said Cameron. “My grandfather always gives me positive words of encouragement. It’s just his wisdom, being a mentor.
“He’s the most loving man I know. He knows where he’s at in his life and he’s always worrying about everyone else but himself. That’s something that I take from him.”
Cameron Champ has spent a lot of time at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento over the years, as his grandfather has worked as a course marshal there.
“I was always there, just about every single day, after school. From 8 to 10 (years old), my parents would drop me off. ‘Pops’ worked and got off around 5 or 6 and I would stay there and practice or kind of goof off,” Champ recalled. “They all liked having me there.”
Champ is part of a group of golf stars from the Sacramento area, joined by Scott McCarron, Al Geiberger, Kevin Sutherland, David Sutherland and Bob Lunn, just to name a few.
Champ grew up in the North Highlands/Foothill Farms area of Sacramento. His foundation, the Cameron Champ Foundation, owns and operates a golf course, Foothill Farms in Sacramento. It’s the first golf course he played at.
The Cameron Champ Foundation helps out youths who are brand new to golf.
“Our priority is to target the minorities and get them introduced to the game. It’s not saying we want them to play, but it’s just having mentorship and having them meet other kids. I think it’s definitely trending in the right direction.”
* Marty James is a freelance writer who makes his home in Napa. He retired on June 4, after spending 40 years as a sports writer, sports editor and executive sports editor for the Napa Valley Register, a daily newspaper in Napa County. He is a 1979 graduate of Sacramento State and a member of the California Golf Writers & Broadcasters Association, Associated Press Sports Editors and California Prep Sports Media Association. He was inducted into the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame in 2016 and the Vintage High School Athletic Hall of Fame in September of this year.