By Rick Brown
Magic happens here. That’s become the John Deere Classic motto, and it stands the test of time.
It started back in 2009, when Steve Stricker won the first of three straight Deere titles. It continued in 2012, when Zach Johnson ended Stricker’s streak and hoisted the Deere Trophy for the first time. Johnson’s bid for a repeat title was cut short in a playoff in 2013. Jordan Spieth, 19 years young, holed a bunker shot on the final hole of regulation and then edged Johnson and David Hearn in a sudden-death playoff to become the youngest PGA Tour winner in 82 years
Johnson came up just short of another 35-pound bronze deer trophy in 2014, when Brian Harman edged him by a shot. And then came 2015. Spieth, with the Masters and U.S. Open trophies already safety tucked away, came to TPC Deere Run instead of heading overseas to prepare for the Open Championship at St. Andrews. And it proved to be a wise decision. Spieth beat Tom Gillis in sudden death for his second Deere win.
With its date traditionally falling a week in front of the Open Championship, tournament director Clair Peterson and Deere officials have had to think outside the box to make this a successful event. Instead of taking a poor-me approach to the date, the tournament embraced it. The best example is the non-stop 767 jet service to the Open Championship that is provided to players in the Deere field.
And 2015 proved that playing in the Deere is not detrimental to playing well in the Open Championship. Zach Johnson won at St. Andrews, edging Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in a playoff. And Spieth was one shot shy of getting in that playoff and keep his Grand Slam hopes alive.
As fate would have it, there was no jet to sell to prospective players this year. The Deere was moved to an August date this year because of the Olympics. Golf has returned to the Olympic Games this year, and it will be played opposite the Deere.
The jet will return in 2017, when the Deere returns to its normal July date a week ahead of the Open Championship.
The schedule flip left many questions to be answered, namely how would the shuffle and the grounded jet alter the John Deere Classic field. With a later date, would the Deere draw more interest from players trying to solidfy their spots in the FedExCup Playoffs or the Ryder Cup? The results are mixed.
The John Deere Classic and the Wyndham Championship the following week in Greensboro, N.C., are the final events before the FedEx Cup Playoffs start with the Barclays at Bethpage Black.
Only the Top 125 players qualify for the playoffs, and that chase has brought plenty of interest to the Deere. Fourteen of the 15 players currently ranked between 120th and 135th on the FedEx Cup points list are in the Deere Field. The lone exception is Padraig Harrington, who is representing Ireland in the Olympics.
The Olympics have also had a significant impact on the Ryder Cup points race. The top eight players after the Barclays will be automatic selections to the team. Davis Love III will then name three of his four captain’s picks after the BMW Championship on Sept. 11. He will make his final captain’s pick at the end of the Tour Championship on Sept. 25.
Johnson, who enters this week with 28 consecutive rounds in the 60s at TPC at Deere Run, and no finish worse than a tie for third since 2011, could lock up his fifth Ryder Cup appearance with a good showing this week.
Johnson is currently sixth on the Ryder Cup points list, and is the only player who can make a move this week. Brooks Koepka, currently fifth, and J.B. Holmes, at seventh, are not playing this week. Patrick Reed (eighth), Bubba Watson (ninth), Matt Kuchar (11th and Rickie Fowler (12th) are all representing the United States in the Olympics.
But there are plenty of interesting subplots, besides Johnson, to follow this week at TPC Deere Run.
Stricker, 49 years young, has been playing great golf of late. He tied for fourth at the Open Championship at Troon, and also has a tie for second at the FedEx St. Jude Classic and a tie for seventh at the Valspar Championship.
Three winners on the PGA Tour are also in the field – Billy Hurley III (Quicken Loans National), Peter Malnati (Sanderson Farms Championship), and Vaughn Taylor (AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am).
Jerry Kelly, another Deere veteran, is back after finishing second at the Travelers Championship on Sunday.
And look for the John Deere Classic to polish its reputation as a place where potential gets rewarded with a chance to play in a PGA Tour event. Tiger Woods, Jason Day and Johnson are just three examples of players who got sponsor’s exemptions into the field when they were just getting started as pros.
This year’s field has plenty of interesting exemption stories as well.
There’s current NCAA champion Aaron Wise of Oregon. He won Syncrude Oil Country Championship in Edmonton, Alberta, a stop on the McKenzie Tour in Canada, a week ago.
And there’s Jon Rahm, who was ranked the No. 1 amateur in the country while playing at Arizona State and is now making a quick splash on the PGA Tour. In his first start as a professional, Rahm tied for third at the Quicken Loans National in June. He also finished third at the RBC Canadian Open last month.
Rahm, who is playing as a Special Temporary Member of the PGA Tour, has 424 non-member FedEx Cup points. To secure his playing card for 2017, he needs to remain inside the equivalent of No. 125 on the FedEx Cup points list. Right now, Johnson Wagner is 125th with 405 points.
Former Big Ten champion Charlie Danielson of Illinois and three-time all-American Robbie Shelton of Alabama are among the other sponsor’s exemptions. There’s also former University of Iowa golfer Brian Bullington, who will make his first PGA Tour start this week. Bullington is currently playing on the PGA Tour Lationamerica. And another to watch is Texan Austin Connelly, who turned pro after high school at 18 years of age. This will be his fourth PGA Tour event.
Other exemptions have gone to Georgia’s Lee McCoy, Michael Johnson of Auburn and Jordan Niebrugge of Oklahoma State, who tied for sixth at the 2015 Open Championship.
Wrap it all together and history tells us that magic will happen this week.
Rick Brown recently concluded a distinguished 35-year career as a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register. As the newspaper’s golf writer, he has covered the John Deere Classic since 1983.