John Deere Classic: Has only gotten stronger year by year
If you can’t admire the John Deere Classic for the fortitude its shown to survive on the PGA Tour, then you’re not a fan of or able to recognize and admit to the fabled Midwestern value of hard work. That’s hard work done with a heavy dose of humble kindness, also legendary in the nation’s heartland.
The JDC, which begins Thursday, has a pedigree up there with the most resilient events in tour history and is a refreshing low-key neighborly stop played during a usually oppressive time of year in north-west Illinois for heat.
I admit to some bias as a native Illinoisan, but the tournament’s hearty survival would be obvious to any objective observer. I have seen the event from a golf writer’s view for 37 years and the determination of its organizers is remarkably unchanged from when I first saw the event in 1981 after graduating from Illinois State University and attending the event at Oakwood Country Club in Coal Valley.
The event started in 1971 as a “tour satellite” event, one of those outdated silly terms that basically was applied to tournaments begun in small-market areas that were thrown out there to see if they could last. The JDC is one of the tour’s greatest success stories in that regard.
It was a good start to have Deane Beman, soon to become tour commissioner, win the first two playings. In Year 3 in ’73, it made news when Sam Adams became the first lefthanded winner on tour. Few tournaments have gone through its history without several incarnations, and the JDC is no exception. The John Deere is on its eighth title: Quad Cities Open, Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open, back to Quad Cities Open, Miller High Life QCO, Lite Quad Cities Open, Hardee’s Golf Classic, Quad City Classic and now in its 20th year as John Deere Classic.
John Deere, of course, is an iconic name in lawn and farm machinery and legendary worldwide. Its presence in the Moline area is a treasured part of its heritage. The backing of Ed McMahon, a beer company and a fast-food outlet in the early going made sense and was part of the survival saga. But John Deere has steadily grown this event, made it stable, and allowed the results to grow its tradition. Results such as Jordan Spieth’s holeout on 18 during his first tour victory in 2013 help people remember the name John Deere Classic and what it stands for: quality in everything from the sponsors and volunteers to the play on TPC Deere Run.
If anything shows how the JDC has been resilient to be an annual stop on tour, it’s how it has survived the frequent scheduling the week prior to, same week of or week after the Open Championship. This year is the 48th playing of a tournament that started with a September date. From 1974 to 1989 the JDC was played the week of The Open, essentially killing its chance of any top golfer playing in it. After seven years of September dates, 20 of the next 23 playings (including this week) were either the week before or week after The Open, just slightly improving its chance of nabbing marquee players. On Tuesday the tour said its 2018-2019 schedule will keep the same alignment with the JDC ending on July 14, one week before The Open. But instead of fighting such an obstacle to success, the John Deere has made it part of its attraction by chartering a plane to take players on Sunday evening, who are entered in The Open, over the Atlantic and getting them there in the middle of the day Monday.
The JDC has always found a way to make its proximity on the schedule with The Open work. When I began my professional writing career with the Bloomington, Illinois, Pantagraph newspaper in 1981—a “week of” year for the JDC with The Open—I wrote a piece in late June that highlighted Gene Smith, the Quad Cities’ director of marketing, saying he believed he had the tournament’s strongest field ever, including Illinois native and 1979 champion D.A. Weibring, as well as Dave Eichelberger, defending champion Scott Hoch, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Fuzzy Zoeller, Steve Melnyk, Jim Dent, Miller Barber, Mike Sullivan and Bobby Clampett. Smith’s thinking then, of working with what they had to deal with, carries on today. Back then he confidently said, “We’re not hurt this year. Last year the British Open was played on a course all the pros wanted to play [Muirfield]. This year it’s not,” referring to Royal St. George’s.
That year, 1981, was also the first time in tournament history that all 18 holes and the putting green were “sold” to major corporate sponsors. That strong support is still keenly felt and the great community-sponsor presence from local ice-cream institution Whitey’s on up to John Deere itself creates a strong down-home atmosphere. Let’s hope there is never a movement by the tour or anyone else to squash that feeling in the future. It's a part of the tour's heritage that needs to remain vibrant.