By: Rick Brown, John Deere Classic Correspondent
Steve Stricker is 51 years old, but acting his age has never been a requirement.
“I don’t feel like I’m in my 50s,” Stricker said. “I preface that by saying when I wake up, I do. But then as I get going I feel okay. I feel like my game is strong enough.”
Stricker is splitting his time this season between the PGA Tour, where he’s played in nine events, and the PGA Tour Champions, where he’s won twice and finished no worse than a tie for fifth in six events.
“Guys have told me, “You can’t play both tours,’ ” Stricker said. “So I’ve taken that as a little bit of a challenge and tried to perform at each level.”
Last month, the three-time John Deere Classic champion walked 36 holes in a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Memphis, Tenn. He shot 68-65 and got a spot.
“I rested most of the next day,” Stricker said. “It was all right.”
He then tied for 20th at Shinnecock Hills, outplaying his age once again. A tie for 12th at the Valspar Championship is his best start on the PGA Tour this season.
Stricker skipped a PGA Tour Champions major, the Constellation Senior Players Championship in Chicago, to play in his 17th John Deere Classic. Stricker said it wasn’t a tough decision.
“I still think I can win out here on this tour and can compete out here at a high level,” Stricker said. “This is one of my favorite tournaments of the year. It has a lot of special memories for me.”
Stricker’s three-year victory run – 2009, 2010 and 2011 – was ended by Zach Johnson. The two are paired together in Thursday’s first round, teeing off t 8 a.m. off No. 10.
The two are both making their 17th appearance in the championship. When Stricker was told he was 171 under par for his 60 tournament rounds, he said, “Probably shy of Zach though. He’s a lot under par.”
In truth, Johnson is a 168 under par. Both players have posted 48 subpar rounds at TPC Deere Run.
“Steve is one of my favorites to be around,” Johnson said. “I mean, he’s the best. He’s a model pro and a model guy.”
Stricker thinks that his dual-tour career pays two times the dividends.
“I come out here, play some decent golf, and get some confidence that I can still compete out here,” Stricker said. “I take that to the PGA Tour Champions where I feel like I should have a chance to win every week I go there. They’ve really helped each other out, so that’s been a really good thing.”
Stricker is the last player to successfully defend his Deere title, something Bryson DeChambeau would like to change. DeChambeau’s title last season was the first of his career, and set the table for an impressive 2018 so far.
DeChambeau won the Memorial, finished second at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, tied for third at the RBC Heritage and has seven Top 10 finishes overall. Another strong finish at the Deere and DeChambeau will play in his first Ryder Cup this fall in France.
“That Ryder Cup looks pretty nice,” said DeChambeau, currently eighth on the points list. “That would be pretty fun to be a part of.”
The fact that DeChambeau won at the same place where his idol, the late Payne Stewart, won his first title in 1982, makes the Quad Cities even more special to him.
“Just a very special place to be able to win with Payne Stewart winning here for the first time,” DeChambeau said. “It meant a lot to me. It was just a perfect fit and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
Francesco Molinari won his first PGA Tour event two weeks ago at the Quicken Loans National on the strength of a final-round 62.
He returned to London after the victory, then came back to the United States to play in his first John Deere Classic. Then he’ll get on the jet the Deere provides for the non-stop flight to Carnoustie and the British Open.
Had the jet not been available, Molinari might not have sandwiched a trip to TPC Deere Run between overseas flights.
“Luckily we have the jet, and it’s a big bonus to save some travel time,” Molinari said. “I guess it wouldn’t be too easy to get out of here Sunday night without the jet. We’re lucky to get that chance.”
The 156-player field is competing for a $5.8 million purse, with the winner getting a check for $1.044 million. But the real beneficiary of the John Deere Classic is charity. Last year, 521 participating charities received $12.27 million. This year, the tournament is expected to break the $100 million mark in charitable contributions, 99 percent of which has been raised since 1998 when Deere assumed the title sponsorship.
“John Deere has been an incredible sponsor for a long time,” DeChambeau said.