John Deere Classic a big success in small market
By TEDDY GREENSTEIN
By TEDDY GREENSTEIN
(MCT) — Jordan Spieth was gassed.
After playing four straight PGA Tour events and shooting a disheartening final-round 75 at the Memorial, Spieth flew from central Ohio to eastern Iowa, dodging thunderstorms along the way. Over breakfast the next day, the normally gregarious Spieth did not say a word.
He needed a quadruple-shot espresso, and it came during a drive in the Quad Cities, Illinois. On his way to John Deere Classic media day, Spieth noticed a giant billboard on John Deere Road.
"MAGIC HAPPENS HERE," it said, over a picture of Spieth tipping his cap.
"He said, 'Slow down, slow down,' " John Deere Classic tournament director Clair Peterson recalled. "He shot video as we went by and said, 'That brings back so many great memories.' He was re-energized."
As Spieth recalled the drive-by, he said: "It's exactly what it says — magic here every year. The finishes are crazy, and hopefully I can be part of another one."
Some call it magic. Tournament chair Laura Ekizian adds a humble Midwestern tone, calling event organizers "lucky" considering the Quad Cities have a combined 375,000 residents while Chicago, two-plus hours east, is essentially an every-other-year PGA Tour destination.
"We should probably have a Web.com (Tour) event," said Ekizian, an Illinois native whom everyone calls "Divot." "But I love the fact that we have more than that."
Ekizian credits title sponsor John Deere for championing an event that was once hosted by Ed McMahon and had been played at the charming but small-time Oakwood Country Club, best known as the site of Payne Stewart's first PGA Tour victory and Tiger Woods' first (and, for 13 years, only) blown Sunday lead.
John Deere and the tour built TPC Deere Run, the picturesque 7,268-yard layout that has hosted since 2000 and will again this week.
Deere Run's top-notch conditioning is among the many selling points as tournament officials try to attract big-name players the same week as the European Tour's Scottish Open, which can offer appearance fees. There are countless small touches, such as the billboard with the defending champion and the warmth of the staff and volunteers.
"I love it here," Spieth said. "People are so gracious."
Said Iowa native Zach Johnson, who won the event in 2012: "It feels like Southern hospitality in the North. They've embraced an average-to-subpar date and made it a family-oriented event."
On Tuesday of tournament week, players and their wives and kids are invited to "The Big Dig" _ a picnic at which guests can fish using Bassmaster gear, move dirt while at the helm of a John Deere tractor, cut down a tree and take in a fireworks show.
No media or fans are invited. It's family time.
"No one has a Sharpie," Peterson said.
Even more significant, tournament officials in 2008 figured out a way to embrace having a date the week before the British Open. They run a chartered flight _ a Boeing 767 with all first-class seats _ that will depart from Moline, Ill., on Sunday night and fly directly to Manchester, England, about 50 miles from Open site Royal Liverpool.
Each player can purchase at least three seats _ bringing their caddie and/or family members _ at $1,500 per one-way ticket, with payments donated to the tournament's Birdies for Charity Fund. Last year's John Deere Classic helped raise $6.3 million for 467 area charities, with 28 players and 96 people taking the jet.
"That was a game-changer," Ekizian said. "We could have put $2 million more into the purse and not had the impact the jet has."
Spieth, then 19, hopped aboard last year after he became the PGA Tour's youngest winner in 82 years.
He began the day dogged by a left wrist ailment and a terrible warm-up session.
"I couldn't even keep it on the driving range _ and this is a big driving range," he said.
A first-hole bogey left him seven shots off the lead. But he came home in 6-under 65, making a birdie on the 18th when his greenside bunker shot bounced against the pin and dropped. Johnson bogeyed No. 18, and Spieth outlasted him and David Hearn in a five-hole playoff.
"I needed miracles for it to happen," he said.
Indeed, it was magical.