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Len Ziehm On Golf

JOHN DEERE CLASSIC: Johnson steals the thunder from Stricker this time

SILVIS, IL. – Steve Stricker’s bid for an historic four-peat at the John Deere Classic fizzled on Sunday, but the end result was almost as good for an emotionally-drained gallery at TPC Deere Run.

Zach Johnson, almost as popular as Stricker in the Quad Cities, got the win in one of the strangest playoffs in PGA Tour history. Johnson, considered the tourney’s hometown favorite since he grew up in Cedar Rapids, Ia., and has long been on the JDC’s board of directors, put both his drives on the two playoff holes in the same fairway bunker.

The first time he scrambled to make double bogey, but that wasn’t so bad because his opponent Troy Matteson did the same. Both players hit their approaches into a green-side pond, an indication neither was ready to win.

Johnson, winner of the 2007 Masters, changed that mindset the second time around when he put his second bunker shot – a 6-iron from 193 yards – to within six inches of the cup. Matteson missed a birdie try from 43 feet, then Johnson tapped in for birdie and his ninth win on the PGA Tour – but his first in 12 JDC appearances. He had a second and a tie for third in the last three years when Stricker was winning his three titles.

“I was shocked that I got into a playoff,’’ said Matteson, the solo leader three the first three rounds and 14 holes into the fourth. Then he made double bogey at the 15th to fall out of the lead before rolling in a 60-foot eagle putt at the 17th to set the stage for the playoff.

“All in all, you go into a playoff and lose to a shot like that after Zach put it in the bunker twice…..My hat’s off to Zach,’’ said Matteson.

“It just feels awesome. I can’t put it into words,’’ said Johnson, who won earlier this year at the Colonial National Invitation tourney in Texas and also finished second twice. This win came without his regular caddie. Damon Green, who had been on Johnson’s bag for 173 straight tournaments. Green spent the week in Michigan where he finished tied for 17th at the U.S. Senior Open.

Mike Bender, Johnson’s swing coach since 2000, carried in Green’s place but Green, thanks to a ride on Tom Watson’s plane, arrived in Moline in time to join Johnson on the direct flight to next week’s British Open. Matteson also made that charter flight, as his runner-up finish gave him the final exemption to the year’s third major championship.

Matteson, who had tried to qualify for the British nine previous times, will make his first appearance across the pond. Stricker will be there, too, undaunted that his bid to join golf legends Tom Morris Jr., Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Tiger Woods as the champion of a major professional tournament four years in a row came up short. He finished in a tie for fifth with Luke Guthrie, the University of Illinois product who finished with the day’s best round – a 64 – to conclude his second tournament as a pro.

“It was a lot of fun trying to do it,’’ said Stricker. “I don’t know if I was tired, but it just didn’t feel like something good was going to happen. It was weird. I never got any momentum.’’

But he was within one shot of then-leader Matteson, his playing partner in the final twosome, after 11 holes of the final round. Hooked drives at Nos. 14 and 15 led to bogeys that brought Stricker’s dreams of a four-peat to an end.