News & Opinion

Donald and Deere: A long time coming

Clair Peterson, the long-time tournament director of the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic, was hoping for a last-minute field boost from either Jordan Spieth, a two-time winner here, or three-time champion Steve Stricker, the recent U.S. Senior Open champion

SILVIS, Ill. – Clair Peterson, the long-time tournament director of the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic, was hoping for a last-minute field boost from either Jordan Spieth, a two-time winner here, or three-time champion Steve Stricker, the recent U.S. Senior Open champion.

Both had advised Peterson that they were “50-50’’ on coming to the event, held traditionally in the week before the British Open. Neither entered before the 5 p.m. Friday deadline, but Peterson had no complaints. The tournament’s 49th staging this week on the Illinois-Iowa border won’t be lacking in talent (field list).

“We still have 59 players who have won PGA Tour events, 29 coming in the last two years,’’ Peterson said. “Five have won major championships, one [Bill Haas] won the Fed Ex Cup [in 2011] and another is a former world No. 1.’’

Luke Donald
Luke Donald, an Englishman with deep roots in Illinois golf, will play the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill., for the first time since 2003.

The latter is Luke Donald, the former Northwestern University star who has remained a solid supporter of golf in Illinois since his college days. Now 41, Donald ranked No. 1 in the world for spans totaling 56 weeks, from May 2011 to August 2012.

Until this year, he owned a home in Chicago’s northern suburbs. He has been a generous supporter of The First Tee of Chicago and Northwestern’s golf program. His long-time swing instructor is Pat Goss, who was Donald’s coach at Northwestern. Donald has been a long-time member of Conway Farms, the Lake Forest club that hosted Illinois’ other PGA event, the BMW Championship, three times.

Donald, however, didn’t have the John Deere Classic on his schedule for the past 15 years. Its course, TPC at Deere Run, is a two-hour drive from the Chicago area. Peterson has improved the JDC participants’ access to the British Open by chartering a jet to the British Isles as soon as the last putt drops in the John Deere. Players have endorsed that amenity.

Louis Oosthuizen even opted to play in the JDC in 2011 before making his British title defense the next week. Last year, Italy’s Francesco Molinari tied for second in the JDC, boarded the chartered jet to the U.K. and won the Claret Jug.

Donald, though, preferred more time across the Atlantic in the summer months. Born in England, he played on the U.S. and European circuits, but his only visit to the JDC was in 2003. That was his second season on the PGA Tour, and he tied for 36th place.

So, what brought about the change of heart?

Donald is playing on a major medical exemption, and that has made his tournament schedule a week-to-week thing. Lingering back problems resulted in his eventually opting for stem-cell therapy. That required a three-month break from golf.

Getting his game back in shape hasn’t been easy. Donald had 15 events in which to earn 336 FedEx Cup points and regain his full membership on the PGA Tour. So far, he has accumulated 110 in his 10 starts.

Though he goes into the JDC at No. 184 in the FedEx standings, Donald has shown progress. He was ranked No. 919 in the world when he teed off in the Valspar Championship in Florida in March. He won that event in 2012, when it was known as the Transitions Championship, on Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course.

Donald had his best finish so far in his comeback attempt in the Valspar, tying for ninth. It was a big confidence-builder, and it led Donald to say, “I still think I’m good enough to compete and win and be one of the better players in the world. I’ve done it before, so there’s no reason why not.’’

Donald has posted no top-10 finishes since then, however, and he still is way down in the Official World Golf Ranking, at No. 472.

In April, he tied for 33rd in the RBC Heritage Classic, an event in which he enjoyed considerable past success (four runners-up and two third-place finishes). In June, he made the cut in three of four starts, though his best finish was only a tie for 46th, two weeks ago at the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic

TPC Deere Run might be just the course that Donald needs to get the big finish that would restore his full playing privileges. At 7,268 yards, it’s not particularly long, and his much-respected short game and bunker play should translate well to that layout, even though his experience on the course has been limited.

Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is a golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and 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