Stricker could be the big story again at the John Deere Classic


The John Deere Classic isn’t the biggest event on the PGA Tour, but it’s the circuit’s only annual Illinois stop and this week’s staging is – by far – the biggest golf event in the state in 2021.

TPC Deere Run, on the outskirts of Moline, again hosts the $6.2 million championship that begins its four-day, 72-hole run on Thursday. It’ll be the tourney’s 50th anniversary celebrated a year late.  The tournament was canceled in 2020 due to pandemic concerns.

A tourney trademark has been its abundance of first-time winners on the PGA Tour.  There have been 23 of them in

tourney’s first 49 years, and that list includes eventual top stars Payne Stewart, Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau.

It also includes Dylan Frittelli, this week’s defending champion. None of the first-time winners could defend their title.  In fact, the only players to win back-to-back were the tourney’s first champion, Deane Beman (1971-72) and Steve Stricker, who pulled off a three-peat from 2009-11.

Stricker, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, could be a factor again this week even though he’s now playing with the 50-and-over circuit.  He won the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship by a whopping six-stroke margin last week at Ohio’s venerable Firestone course and is skipping the next major on PGA Tour Champions, the U.S. Senior Open, to return to the JDC instead.

Frittelli’s chances this week don’t appear nearly as good as Stricker’s. Frittelli had two top-10 finishes in big events after his win in the JDC — a tie for fifth in the 2020 Masters and ninth-place showing the the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play Championship in March.

He’s missed the cut in six of his last seven starts, though.  There was a brief return to form when Frittelli shot a 65 in U.S. Open qualifying and tied for 46th in the main event, but he missed cuts the last two weeks leading into his title defense.

“Not to sound too cliché, but (winning the JDC) gave me a sense of belonging.  That solidifies the fact that I’m on the PGA Tour and can be here long term,’’ said Frittelli. Looking back on his win two years ago.  “I don’t know how many winners there have been – probably a thousand that have done that.  As you get more wins, more stature, you realize that was basically the thing that started the domino effect.  You’ve obviously got to get over that hill before you can win two or three times.  I’m proud to have made that step at the John Deere Classic.’’

Winning the JDC doesn’t mean immediate success.  Michael Kim was the winner in 2018, a year before Frittelli.  Kim set the JDC scoring record at 27-under-par 257 for the 72 holes and won by eight shots. Then his game went sour.  Kim showed up for his title defense with a string of 27 missed cuts in a row and made it 28 in the year that Frittelli had his breakthrough.

The South African-born Frittelli, 31, had a great amateur career, winning the World Junior in 2007 and holing the winning putt for the University of Texas to give the Longhorns the 2012 NCAA team title.

In addition to Stricker, Frittelli and Kim, the past champions in the JDC’s 156 starters this week include  Ryan Moore (2016), Brian Harman (2014),  Zach Johnson (2012), Jonathan Byrd (2007), John Senden (2006) and Sean O’Hair (2005).  The field also features Chicago-based PGA Tour members Kevin Streelman and Doug Ghim and some formidable late entries includes Brandt Snedeker and Daniel Berger.

Tournament director Clair Peterson also awarded sponsor exemptions to six college stars, and at least two of them – Illinois’ Michael Feagles and Illinois State’s David Perkins – will make their professional debuts this week.