Johnson’s JDC title defense is almost as captivating as Stricker’s was last year

Clair Peterson, tournament director for the John Deere Classic, has felt blessed – and with good reason.

From 2009-2011 he had a very popular champion whose presence enhanced the interest in the JDC. Steve Stricker, from nearby Madison, Wis., tried to become only the fifth golfer in 140 years to win a major professional tournament four straight times last July. That made the 2012 JDC international news.

Stricker wasn’t successful in his bid for a four-peat, but the interest generated by his attempt led to the JDC raising a record $6.79 million for 493 local and regional charities. That dollar figure was a staggering $1.5 million over the previous high, and the PGA Tour presented the tourney with its Most Engaged Community Award for 2012.

Though Stricker won’t be playing for such a lofty spot in golf history, this year’s JDC – scheduled for July 8-14 at TPC Deere Run in Silvis — wil have a defending champion who is every bit as popular in the Quad Cities.

Zach Johnson dethroned Stricker, and no player is closer to the tournament than Johnson. He’s been a JDC board member since 2003 — his rookie season on the PGA Tour.

“We’ve had great story lines,’’ said Peterson, the tournament director since ’03. “Steve Stricker is a humble, hard-working guy who comes back for every media day. He made a tremendous title defense that wasn’t over until an hour before the finish on Sunday. And now we have Zach, a favorite son who has been with us through good and bad times. We couldn’t have scripted it any better.’’

Johnson’s connection with the tournament began the year before Peterson moved into his present position.

“In 2002 Zach, being from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had a network of investors that lobbied for us to give this kid a chance.’’

Johnson was given a sponsor’s exemption that year, but didn’t survive the 36-hole cut. He asked Johnson for an exemption the following year, when he was starting his career on the Nationwide Tour.

“He called me Mr. Peterson then, and I told him we should be on a first-name basis,’’ said Peterson. The exemption was granted, but Johnson missed the cut again. He did, however, blossom on the Nationwide (now Tour) and wound up that circuit’s leading money-winner.

That feat earned Johnson his PGA Tour card, and Johnson invited him to become a JDC board member. Johnson, armed with a business degree from Drake University in DesMoines, Iowa, has retained that role ever since and never missed the tournament even when it might have been to his own detriment.

In 2007 Johnson won the Masters and could have picked up a very significant appearance fee to play in a European tournament the week of that year’s JDC. He chose to return to the Quad Cities instead.

Even before that Johnson went the extra mile to help the event that he regularly refers to as “my fifth major.’’ When Vijay Singh, the champion in 2003, declined to appear at media day for the 2004 tournament Johnson stepped in.

“We didn’t know what to do, so we asked Zach to take on that role. Now, 10 years later, there’s a good bookend to that story,’’ said Peterson. Johnson, as this year’s defending champion, gets the spotlight at the next media day event this month (JUNE).

As a board member Johnson has recruited top players to the Quad Cities, John Huh being one of them for this year. Johnson was also instrumental in Peterson’s wildly successful decision to hire a jet to take players directly from the Quad Cities to the British Open instead of increasing the tournament purse.

Johnson advised the JDC was to hire the jet because “it’d make the players’ life easier.’’ In so doing, it greatly improved the field at the Quad Cities in its traditional dates the week before the year’s third major championship across the pond. In 2011 South African Louis Oosthuizen prepared to defend his British title by playing in the JDC instead of resting or playing in a European event for a substantial appearance fee.

Oosthuizen enjoyed his Quad Cities experience so much in 2011 that he used his prize money to buy a John Deere tractor for his family farm in South Africa. This year he’s returning to the Quad Cities with his father and father-in-law so that they can get the same tour of the John Deere plant that he received.

Johnson, of course, is no longer a resident of Cedar Rapids. He and his family (wife Kim, sons Will and Wyatt and daughter Abby) live in Sea Pines, Ga., where the weather is more conducive to year-around golf. Johnson’s parents, though, still live in Cedar Rapids and he’s been able to maintain his duties with the JDC board despite his PGA Tour commitments.

“Our board has 37 people overall and the executive committee has about eight people,’’ explained Peterson. “We meet once a month before board meetings and Zach calls in. He couldn’t possible be there.’’

But he has learned to play TPC Deere Run over the years. He finished second to Stricker in 2009 tied for third in 2011 before his breakthrough win last year. It came in a two-hole playoff with Troy Matteson, the clinching birdie coming when Johnson hit a 6-iron from 193 yards on the No. 18 hole to within inches of the cup.

That was Johnson’s ninth win on the PGA Tour. Stricker wound up fifth, tied with Luke Guthrie – another University of Illinois golfer who got into the tournament on a sponsor’s exemption. Stricker, though he’s playing a very limited schedule, will be back in the JDC field.

“I wasn’t surprised he wanted a limited schedule,’’ said Peterson. “He is focused first and foremost on his family, and being away from home so much truly bothered him. Financially he has been very successful, and making that decision took the pressure off him. He goes out when he wants, when he’s healthy and refreshed.’’

Even on a limited schedule Stricker has been very competitive in the tournaments he has played in. Maybe a Johnson-Stricker duel at TPC Deere Run will be in the offing. In the Quad Cities there couldn’t be anything better.