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Len Ziehm On Golf

Dates opposite the Olympics won’t be a big problem for the JDC

If you had asked me, I would have told you.

The PGA Tour should not have made all those changes to its mid- to late-summer schedule just to accommodate the Olympics. All that did was inconvenience tournament organizers, leave most of the players in limbo and confuse ticket-buyers who had gotten used to watching specific tournaments on specific dates year after year after year.

No PGA Tour tournament was more impacted on that front than the John Deere Classic. The lone annual PGA Tour stop in Illinois drew Aug. 11-14 dates – the same days the 72-hole Olympic men’s competition will be conducted in Brazil. The JDC had thrived with July dates the week before the British Open in recent years.

Fortunately the JDC, in its 46th year, has been a resilient event. That’s been proven over and over, when the tournament struggled for survival in one of the circuit’s smallest markets. Going way back, what’s now the well-established JDC had to deal with weak fields, sponsorship problems which resulted in a variety of title changes and moving from one course to another. But nothing, it seems, can stop the JDC now – and it certainly won’t be these Olympic Games.

The seriousness of the Zika virus notwithstanding, the continuous dropouts of top players from the Olympics – the number was at 18 at the time of this printing – suggests that tournament will be special only because it’s the Olympics and the first time golf will be contested since 1904. It certainly won’t be because of the quality of the field.

When all is said and done it wouldn’t be surprising if the JDC draws as much TV attention from golfers as the Olympics’ golf competition will. Only 60 players will be in the Olympics and at least a few of those who could have competed in Brazil may well wind up competing at TPC Deere Run.

Zach Johnson — the former Masters, JDC and British Open champion who has long been on the JDC board of directors – long predicted that the John Deere Classic would have a “late developing field.’’ Look for some big name players to enter after the last of this year’s four majors. The PGA Championship, because of all the shuffling inspired by the Olympics, was played only two weeks after Henrik Stenson’s spectacular win in the British Open at Royal Troon. The PGA – last of the majors — concluded on July 31.

Enough said about the Olympics. Suffice it to say, the JDC will do just fine even without being in the global golf spotlight. The event’s annual media day underscored that. Paul Scranton, this year’s volunteer chairman, announced that the JDC has 1,750 volunteers ready to go for a worthy cause.

Last year’s JDC raised $8.7 million that was dispersed among over 500 local charities. (In its 45-year history the tourney’s charity donations have topped $71 million).

An impact study conducted last year by sponsor John Deere and Western Illinois University determined that the tournament added over $54 million to the Quad Cities economy and this will be another big year, Olympics or not.

As for the golf, the JDC field won’t have Jordan Spieth – and his absence won’t go unnoticed. It won’t go unnoticed at Brazil, either. On JDC media day, just as tournament director Clair Peterson was about to address the assembled writers and broadcasters, The Golf Channel announced that Spieth had decided against going to Brazil. The gathering immediately grew silent, wondering if the JDC’s two-time champion might defend his title after all.

Spieth quickly put an end to that line of thought, saying he didn’t think his playing in a tournament opposite the Olympics would be “appropriate.’’ For Spieth that was the right decision.

For many others bypassing the Olympics, though, such a stance might not work. Brendon de Jonge, for instance, could have played for his native Zimbabwe in Brazil. Instead he withdrew himself from Olympic consideration citing “job security.’’ The Zika virus wasn’t the overriding factor for him. He wants to play in the FedEx Cup Playoffs and a player must be in the top 125 on the point list to make it.

The JDC will have two of its longstanding stars in Johnson and three-time winner Steve Stricker, who is coming off a surprising fourth place finish in the British Open. Other early commitments came from former major championship winners Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and David Toms.

Other commits among players who have won events on the PGA Tour in the last two years came from Ben Crane, Chesson Hadley, J.J. Henry, Billy Hurley III, Pater Malnati, Troy Merritt, Seung-Yul Noh, John Senden, Scott Stallings, Robert Streb, Brian Stuard, Vaughn Taylor, Nick Taylor and Brendon Todd.

With a purse of $4.8 million, a first-place prize of $864,000 and 500 FedEx Cup points on the line, the tourney is well worth playing with the lucractive Playoffs closing in.

“We’re pleased and excited about the players who have committed to play in this year’s tournament,’’ said Peterson. “Because of the compressed nature of this year’s PGA Tour schedule we know many other players will make their decisions closer to the tournament.’’

For starters, though, the JDC was given five sponsor exemptions for the seeming inconvenience of being scheduled opposite the Olympics. Two of the first five – NCAA champion Aaron Wise of Oregon and Charlie Danielson, the Big Ten player of the year from Illinois – attended media day.

The other three had good reasons for not being there. Jordan Niebrugge was competing at the British Open, having secured a spot off his sixth-place finish there the previous year, and Lee McCoy and Jon Rahm were taking advantage of sponsor’s exemptions to the Barbasol Championship, the PGA Tour stop played opposite the British. The JDC invite will give them another early start on golf’s premier circuit.

“We have a long history of introducing our golf fans to that next great class,’’ said Peterson, citing Johnson, Spieth, Justin Thomas, Camilo Villegas, Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar, Bryson DeChambeau, Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson and Bill Haas as those “young players coming out of college that we were able to help kick-start their careers.’’

That’s an impressive list, and Wise and Danielson were most appreciative.

“The John Deere is going to be an incredible opportunity,’’ said Wise. “For us to get an exemption into a PGA Tour event is awesome. It’s what we need; it’s what we work towards.’’

“I’m just trying to play as much good golf as I can before Q-school,’’ said Danielson. “It’s just about staying fresh, staying competitive and getting ready to go get my card.’’

He expects to start his first pro season on the Web.com Tour “unless something spectacular happens.’’ Danielson shouldn’t be ruling that out. After all, the slogan for the John Deere is “Magic Starts Here.’’ It has for many players in the past and certainly could for him, Wise and the other young stars who will gather with an array of seasoned professionals at TPC Deere Run for pre-tournament activities starting on Aug. 8.