Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau, Zach Johnson all made a name for themselves at John Deere Classic. How one tournament director wooed top young talent to America’s Heartland

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The corn fields adjacent to John Deere headquarters in Silvis, Illinois, typically are knee-high by the 4th of July. That’s how Webb Simpson remembers them as he returns to this northwestern corner of the Land of Lincoln for the first time in a dozen years to play at TPC Deere Run in the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic, which is celebrating its 50th edition.

Simpson, winner of the 2012 U.S. Open among his seven Tour titles, is back in America’s Heartland to pay a debt of gratitude to longtime tournament director Clair Peterson, who is retiring this year, and gave him a sponsor’s exemption in 2008.

“I was elated because there’s so many uncertainties when you turn pro as a young player,” said Simpson, who graduate from Wake Forest that summer. “You don’t know which tour you’re going to be playing on, if any tour.”

The John Deere Classic grew in meaning to Simpson when he returned to the Quad Cities to compete a year later as a rookie and proposed to his wife, Dowd, the mother of his five children, the night before the final round.

“She knew the question was coming in the next few months, so I thought I’m going to get her when she least expects it,” he said. “Decided right by the river’s a beautiful area, I can take her to dinner, I can surprise her.”

Simpson’s caddie secured the ring and he dropped to one knee on a dock along the Mississippi River, which divides Bettencourt and Davenport, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois.

“I was more nervous about dropping it than her saying yes,” said Simpson, who claimed to be 99 percent sure she would say yes.

Fast forward to March at the Valspar Championship and Simpson told Peterson to count him in for his farewell tournament. With the pre-tournament withdrawal of Daniel Berger due to injury, Simpson, at No. 58 in the Official World Golf Ranking, represents the highest-ranked player in the field, but he downplayed any talk that he should be the favorite.

“A hundred guys could win this week,” Simpson said. “Just because the field isn’t as strong as other weeks it’s still going to take a really low number(to win).”

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With the tournament going up against the second event of LIV Golf, the upstart league that has wooed the likes of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and former JDC champion Bryson DeChambeau, and scheduled between the U.S. Open and British Open, Peterson knew his event would be a tough draw.

“How many major winners do you have here compared to John Deere? It’s not even close,” said Pat Perez, a defector to the renegade LIV Golf. “The Tour wants to keep talking about strength of field and all that kind of stuff, the strength of field is here.”

To make matters worse for Peterson and the John Deere, several of the biggest stars in the game are heading next week to the Genesis Scottish Open, an event co-sanctioned between the PGA Tour and DP World Tour for the first time, which certainly had a detrimental effect, too. But none of this is new for an event that has rolled with the punches.

“I like to say we hit for the cycle,” Peterson said. “We’ve been opposite the British Open, we’ve been opposite the Olympics, we’ve been opposite the Ryder Cup and we’ve been opposite the Presidents Cup. So, our history is not always to have the top-10 players in the world here.”

What Peterson has excelled at is finding the stars of tomorrow and offering them sponsor exemptions into the field.

“I’ve kind of compared it, I guess, to an IPO, where there’s an initial public offering of this new product and there’s no promise that there’s going to be success,” Peterson said, “but you try to do your homework and identify guys in this case that were going to be successful as athletes, but quite honestly we also were really focused on young men that we liked and respected and had a lot of regard for.”

Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth

Jordan Spieth holds the winner’s check after winning a three-way, five-hole sudden death playoff at the John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run on July 14, 2013 in Silvis, Illinois. (Photo: Michael Cohen-Getty Images)

Among those who benefited from a JDC invite include defending champion Lucas Glover, Jon Rahm and DeChambeau, who all later won U.S. Opens; past champ Jordan Spieth (three majors in all), Zach Johnson (two majors) and Patrick Reed, who all won green jackets; Justin Thomas, who just won his second PGA Championship, and Jason Day, who also won the Wanamaker, and is in the field this week.

“We gave him a spot as a 17-year old. He made his first check here,” Peterson said of Day, who returned five times. “Then he becomes No. 1 in the world. And it’s tough, once you’re getting into all the majors and the World Golf Championships, you can play all over the world, it’s tough to build a schedule and include our event…But here he is this year to come back and recognize that we gave him a spot, it’s exciting to have him here and that’s the value of the relationships, I think. There’s no expiration date on ’em.”

Peterson pointed out that for all his success with sponsor invites, his record isn’t perfect.

“I’m going to give you a true confession right now, because people have said, ‘Oh, wow, you know, you do a great job picking exemptions.’ I said no to Scottie Scheffler, OK? So don’t give me too much credit. That’s one that really kind of was a whiff. But I think he’s going to do OK.”

This year the list of those Peterson awarded golden tickets to includes Chris Gotterup, the Haskins Award winner as men’s college golfer of the year, Quinn Riley, a Black golfer who played at Duke, and Patrick Flavin, an Illinois native who grew up attending the tournament.

“It’s a dream come true,” Flavin said. “The John Deere Classic to me was always a major. It was a really big deal. Watching guys like Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker win, guys from the Midwest who aren’t overpowering people and I’m kind of a small guy, it was really inspiring to me.”

So is the local support for the tournament and the charity dollars it has raised – $145 million.

“To me that’s a success,” Peterson said. “You can’t judge the success of the tournament just by the strength of the field.”