News & Opinion

It’s ‘Throwback Week’ on Tour at Quad Cities

SILVIS, Ill. – Golf-wise, this little community on the outskirts of the Mississippi River towns of Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa is a phenomenon. A PGA Tour event has been played here every year since 2000, and the entire area known as the Quad Cities has commanded a tournament for 47 consecutive years.

The PGA Tour doesn’t seek out markets the size of the Quad Cities. It’s just too small, but the circuit is lucky to have it on its annual schedule. No community has been more supportive of the pro golf tour than the Quad Cities. As proof, note that the John Deere Classic, which tees off Thursday at TPC Deere Run, was the circuit’s Tournament of the Year in 2016, is a six-time winner of the Most Engaged Community award and has won the Best Social Media Activation award for the past three years.

Yes, the John Deere Classic does a lot of things right. That’s what two-time winner Jordan Spieth has said. Three-time champion Steve Stricker considers the JDC a throwback to the days early in his career when community involvement was a bigger thing than it is now. That’s in part why Stricker is skipping a Champions Tour major – the Constellation Senior Players Championship, being played two hours away in the Chicago area – to compete at TPC Deere Run.

In its early years, the tournament was known as the Quad Cities Open. Deane Beman, the eventual PGA Tour commissioner, won the first two tournaments, in 1971 (when it was an unofficial event) and 1972, at Crow Valley, which is on the Iowa side of the Mississippi. 

Crow Valley remained the site for two more years and Quad Cities was in the title until 1986, when fast-food chain Hardee’s started a nine-year run as tournament sponsor. Then it was back to the Quad City Classic for four years until Moline-based John Deere & Co., the agriculture equipment manufacturer, took over.

The tournament is expected to top $100 million in its charity giving this year, and more than 99 percent of it has come since John Deere became the sponsor. The company put its name on the tournament in 1999. the last of the 24 years the tournament had been played at Oakwood Country Club in Coal Valley, Ill. 

Oakwood was a short par-70 layout. It never played longer than 6,762 yards, and the purse was but $2 million for the last playing there. The best feature was those delicious pork chop sandwiches that are still a tournament tradition.

In 2000, the event’s 30th edition, the tournament was moved to 7,183-yard par-71 TPC Deere Run, a course designed by D.A. Weibring, an Illinois native and three-time Deere winner.

The tournament has endured some tough times, but the arrival of John Deere eventually solved most of them. The event was upgraded in a variety of ways – signage, seating, fan experiences and hospitality options – while somehow maintaining its down-home feeling.

Date problems – the tournament has been played a week before the British Open – made it difficult to land some of the top players, Clair Peterson, the tournament director since 2003, appealed to their sense of loyalty. He made a point of using his sponsor exemptions on up-and-coming young players in hopes that they would enjoy the tournament enough to want to return when they became top stars.

In addition to Spieth, others who received invitations early in their careers included Tiger Woods, Bill Haas, Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm. Some haven’t returned, but many have been back.

In 2004, the R&A gave the JDC the last British Open exemption. That helped the tournament’s credibility, and Peterson took it a step further with what now seems to be a stroke of genius. In 2008, he began providing a charter jet to the British Open site. It flies directly from the Quad Cities Airport, and players and their caddies can depart a few hours after the last putt drops at TPC Deere Run. Reduced travel expenses to the U.K. proved to be a much better enticement for players to come to the JDC than any increase in prize money could.

This year, the JDC might have its best field ever. Bryson DeChambeau is the defending champion. Long-time favorites Stricker and Zach Johnson (an Iowa native who is on the JDC board of directors and a tournament spokesman) are fixtures. Brandt Snedeker is returning for the first time since 2009, when he was the tourney runner-up. There’s also a nice foreign touch with Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who won the Quicken Loans National two weeks ago, and Joaquin Niemann, the 19-year-old Chilean sensation.

Those sponsor exemptions also will bear watching again. All were collegiate stars with Illinois ties. Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy played at the University of Illinois. Doug Ghim, who won the Ben Hogan Award while playing at Texas, grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and Norman Xiong won the 2017 Western Amateur in the Chicago area. 

Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is in his ninth year as golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and in his 29th year as golf columnist for Chicagoland Golf, a monthly publication. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer, the Illinois PGA website and operates lenziehmongolf.com. Email: lenziehm@gmail.com; Twitter: @ZiehmLen