By Dan Reardon
In the family of PGA Tour events, the John Deere Classic is the Rodney Dangerfield of tournaments, getting very little respect. With the small-market location and ever-challenging placement on the calendar, the tournament has always had to do that much more to attract representative fields. But with the 44th edition now in the books, it might also be labeled the “little tournament that could.”
Located in the Quad Cities area of Illinois/Iowa, the event has been conducted under three different sponsor headings. For a time, they used Johnny Carson sidekick Ed Mc Mahon as their celebrity host in hopes of garnering some attention. For years it was annually an opposite-field event staged the same week as the Open Championship in Britain. Since John Deere came aboard, they found a slight schedule improvement, being bumped to the week before the third major of the year.
More recently some players have seen the Deere as the last qualification event for the Open, and the sponsor provided a private charter to expedite travel for those in the field headed overseas.
The tournament has had moments of curiosity along the way. Playing in only his third PGA Tour event as a professional, 20-year-old Tiger Woods surrendered a third-round lead to Ed “The Grip” Fiori at the then Quad Cities Classic in 1996. Woods would not surrender another third-round lead for more than a decade. In 2005 the tournament also gave Michelle Wie a sponsor’s exemption into the field; she generated some buzz but failed to make it to the weekend.
Three years ago a 19-year-old came out of a greenside bunker on the 72nd hole to climb into a playoff and go on to win on Tour for the first time. Jordan Spieth repaid his benefactors with an appearance in 2015, the week before St. Andrews, and his attempt to make it three major wins in succession. He was rewarded with his second John Deere title.
In 2016 all the stars lined up against the event’s hopes of gathering an elite field. Moved off the Open eve, their second week in August date put them opposite the first Olympic Golf Tournament in 112 years. With 56 international players in Rio along with four Americans from the world’s top 15, the tournament listed only one player from the top 30 in the FedExCup standings — Kevin Na at 12th. Even Spieth, who opted out of the Olympics, chose not to try to go back to back at TPC Deere Run out of respect for the Games.
Adding to the tourney woes, weather delays on Thursday and Friday produced one of the most unusual finishes of a round that Friday. Desperately trying to avoid an early return to the course on Saturday to complete their round, the final group sprinted to the 18th tee to get a ball in play before the horn sounded. Reaching the green in near total darkness, those innovative folks from the John Deere cranked up the wattage on their electronic greenside scoreboard and gave the group illumination from the largest LED flashlight around.
Two reliables in the field could not generate a following on the weekend. Three-time champion Steve Stricker played his final round in the Quad Cities before he transitions to the Champions Tour but finished well back in the pack. Local Iowa favorite Zach Johnson was back at John Deere as a former champion from 2012, but he also could do no better than T34.
That left it to Ryan Moore to provide the 2016 storyline, and the four-time PGA Tour winner stamped out four days of textbook golf to earn his fifth. It was a machine-like performance by Moore, who carded only one bogey over 72 holes. For the week, he hit 60 of 72 greens in regulation and missed only 10 fairways. Three straight 65s punctuated with a 67 on Sunday put him at -22, two clear of Ben Martin.
When asked after the win why he keeps the John Deere on his schedule, Moore summed up what the Tour stars miss each year. “It’s nice, there’s a lot of weeks that are pretty hectic and busy, and this is just a great week to bring your family and hang out and relax a little bit. It has a lot of character, and that just makes it fun and unique and a tournament that finds its way into a lot of guys’ schedules.”
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.