SILVIS, IL. – Organizers of what is now established as the John Deere Classic have coped with a variety of challenges for 45 years as a small market tournament on the PGA Tour – but never was the challenge anything like this one.
Golf will be contested at the Olympic Games for the first time since 1904 beginning on Thursday. That’s also the same day the John Deere Classic tees off at TPC Deere Run in this small town the outskirts of Moline, IL., and Davenport, IA.
Normally the JDC is held in July, the week before the British Open. That’s been a good date for the event, especially after tournament director Clair Peterson hired a jet to take any interested players directly to The Open as soon as the last putt dropped in the JDC. That was an amenity widely appreciated by the players.
Going head to head with the Olympics is different, though the Games didn’t get the respect anticipated from the golf’s top players. Six of the top 10 in the world rankings decided against going to Brazil, many citing concerns over the Zika virus. They included Jordan Spieth, who would be defending this JDC title this week if he hadn’t decided to take the week off altogether.
Of the four American players competing in Rio three didn’tt arrived until late Monday. Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed all played in the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship in Hartford, Ct., which ended on Sunday. Only Rickie Fowler was in Rio for the Opening Ceremonies.
So where did that leave the JDC? At least long-time favorites Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson are in the field. Both are making their 15th straight appearance at TPC Deere Run.
“It’s a special place for me,’’ said Stricker, who won the tournament three times. “The fans really get behind me and Zach. The course is in unbelievable shape – the best I’ve ever seen it. It’s going to be a great week for everybody here.’’
Johnson felt the same way, though he called the scheduling of the tournament opposite the Olympics “unfortunate.’’
“The Olympics has put a wedge in our schedule. It’s affected every tournament post-U.S. Open,’’ said Johnson, a JDC board member. “I don’t know if there’s a positive for anybody. There may not be many negatives either. It’s just different.’’
Olympics or not, the JDC is meaningful a lots players – whether they’re here or not.
“You can look at it a number of ways,’’ said Johnson, a former Masters and British champion. “There are only two weeks left before the (FedEx Cup) Playoffs. There are only so many weeks left of Ryder Cup points. There are a lot of things at stake, so guys want to play and get some points here and there. But the Olympics touched the majors, too. It made you think about when to play and when to rest, which is more important this time of year.’’
Johnson has been a major contender the last seven stagings of the JDC. That stretch included a victory (in 2012), a playoff loss, two runner-up finishes and two ties for third.
Last week Johnson was paired the first two rounds with Jim Furyk at the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Ct. Furyk barely survived the 36-hole cut before shocking the golf world with a record 58 on Sunday. TPC Deere Run was the site of Paul Goydos’ 59 in 2010, on the same day that Stricker shot a 60.
“(Low scores) are much more attainable here,’’ said Johnson. “You have three par-5s and a drivable par-4. TPC River Highlands (in Hartford) is harder top to bottom.’’
The JDC has led the PGA Tour events in birdies in four of the last five years, and another low-scoring affair seems likely. Johnson and Stricker head the field, as usual, and the rest of the competitors include more than the usual number of college stars who have just entered the professional ranks. They include Aaron Wise, of Oregon; Charlie Danielson, Illinois; Jordan Niebrugge, Oklahoma State; Jon Rahm, Arizona State; and Lee McCoy, Georgia.
First-time winners are not unusual at the JDC. Twenty players have notched their first PGA Tour title at the JDC, the last being Brian Harman in 2014.
The 156 starters will be playing for an $4.8 million purse with Sunday’s champion receiving $864,000. The starters also include former major championship winners Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and David Toms plus former JDC champions John Senden and Jonathan Byrd.