Pro Golf Weekly

4 Storylines To Follow: John Deere Classic

Joel Cook looks at handful of storylines to follow this week at TPC Deere Run for the 2018 John Deere Classic.


The Open Championship, the biggest golf tournament on earth that tees off outside of the United States, is set to begin next week, and it is difficult to remember the last major that was so wide-open. With so many highly-talented players with a great chance, Carnoustie is going to be the site of something really special&.
 
That being said, there is still a week to go, and for now, the PGA Tour treks to rural Illinois for its annual lead-in to The Open, the John Deere Classic. Held at TPC Deere Run, the John Deere Classic is a scorefest that has helped birth a number of PGA Tour greats.
 
Much is at stake for the 156-man field, including PGA Tour cards, FedExCup playoff chances, and likely for one player, a spot at Carnoustie. Those in Silva will be highly motivated.
 
Here are some of the storylines to watch especially close this week:


2018 JOHN DEERE CLASSIC STORYLINES

1. DeCHAMBEAU DEFENDS

In the 46 year history of the John Deere Classic, 21 champions were first-time PGA Tour winners. None were more notable than when Jordan Spieth holed out from a bunker to make a playoff he would win as a 19-year-old, but TPC Deere Run appears to have kickstarted an elite career for another young, glowing personality, defending champion Bryson DeChambeau.

Bryson DeChambeau Wins John Deere Classic
Bryson DeChambeau reacts after winning the 2017 John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Illinois. Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

DeChambeau, just 23 years of age when at this time last year, had flashed incredible talent in the past, like when he finished T4 in his first professional tournament in 2016, but he had gotten his 2017 season off to a difficult start, having missed the weekend in an astounding 15 events in 22 season starts. After missing eight consecutive cuts at one point, Bryson’s game started trending positively with finishes of T26 and T17, before a final round 65 at The Greenbrier was the catalyst for a T14 the week prior to the John Deere.

At TPC Deere Run, Sunday was again the round of the week for DeChambeau, who started the day well back of the lead, but carded birdies on seven of his final 11 holes to explode past a crowd that included John Deere wizards Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker, and nip 54-hole leader Patrick Rodgers by one stroke.

In 2018, DeChambeau has blossomed into one of the best all-around talents on Tour. Currently sitting at No. 6 in the FedExCup standings, Bryson has posted seven top-10 finishes in just 18 events, with five of those inside the top 5, and he has only failed to reach the weekend twice all season. His season highlight was his career victory No. 2, which occurred at last month’s Memorial Tournament, which boasts one of the strongest fields of the year outside of the majors and WGC events. His stellar season will likely result in a position on the American Ryder Cup team in September.

As maybe the best player in the John Deere Classic field, DeChambeau stands a great chance of becoming the third player this season to successfully defend a 2017 title, the others being Brendan Steele at the Safeway Open and Brooks Koepka at the U.S. Open.


2. ONE SPOT REMAINS FOR CARNOUSTIE!

The past several PGA Tour events have awarded Open Championship exemptions to high finishing players who had not already qualified. Now, just a week away from Carnoustie, only one of those much-coveted exemptions remain, and it will go to the highest-finisher inside the top 5 who is not already qualified. In an attempt to draw some bigger names, the PGA Tour charters a private jet from Silvis to The Open Championship.

Bryson DeChambeau
Bryson DeChambeau poses with an Open Championship flag after winning the 2017 John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Illinois. Credit: Michael Cohen/Getty Images

Last year, Bryson DeChambeau took a seat on that jet after winning the John Deere Classic. Who has the best chance of being this year’s Bryson DeChambeau in this regard? Here are the five players we like most:

STEVE STRICKER

We will be expanding further on Stricker in the next section relative to his phenomenal history in this event, but we will use this space to talk about his Open Championship hopes. Even at 51 years of age, Stricker would likely qualify for The Open (and the other majors) if he did not play an abbreviated schedule.

Between his limited PGA Tour events and sharing time with the Champions Tour, his world ranking of 134th does not accurately depict how good of a player he is. Stricker can get into Carnoustie with another very high finish in this event, and his legacy could desperately use some major contention.

Stricker finished solo-fourth at the 2016 Open, which shockingly, was his first top 5 in a major since the 1999 U.S. Open, which was won by a man (Payne Stewart) who passed away nearly 19 years ago. Stricker is good enough to challenge the major winner age record of 48, currently owned by Julius Boros, but he has to actually get into the event first.

BILL HAAS

A six-time PGA Tour winner, it is considered disappointing that Haas has such an unspectacular major championship record. He has just two top-10s in 34 major starts, but to his credit, he rarely has failed to qualify for the field.

A streak of eight-consecutive Open Championship starts is in serious jeopardy as Haas is not in the field, with just one week to go. He has been in terrible form this season, and has just one finish inside the top 35 in his last 10 starts.

There is some hope for him this week, as one of the bigger names in the field, but he has not played in this event since missing the cut in 2009.

ANDREW LANDRY

Landry has a win and a runner-up on the season, has five top-10s, is ranked 19th in the FedExCup standings and 68th in the world rankings, but he still does not have a spot at Carnoustie next week.

The 30-year-old Texan did not help himself with a dreadful six-start stretch of play after his Valero Texas Open triumph, reaching the weekend only twice and failing to even post a top-60, but he may be coming back around after a T8 two weeks ago at the Quicken Loans National, an event where he posted rounds of 63 and 65.

Landry has only played TPC Deere Run once (2016), but managed a T8 finish.

AARON WISE

The extremely talented 22-year-old who won an NCAA individual championship at the University of Oregon showed us a glimpse of the future in May, when he looked extremely composed in a flat-out dominant victory at the AT&T Byron Nelson, two weeks after finishing runner-up at the difficult Wells Fargo Championship.

Unfortunately for the man who will likely play in many Opens, he has not as much as made a cut since that stretch. Wise does have some positive history in this event, though, finishing T16 in 2016 in his first PGA Tour non-major as a professional.

BRIAN GAY

The short, accurate hitter would seem like a good fit for TPC Deere Run, although he has not played the course well outside of a T9 in 2011. The four-time PGA Tour winner has been more relevant in 2018 than he has in some time, with more top 25s (10) this season than he had in his previous four seasons combined (9).

The 46-year-old is in good form lately, with top 20s in four of his past six events, but he will need to step it up even further if he wants to qualify for his first Open Championship since 2016.


3. USUAL SUSPECTS: ZACH JOHNSON AND STEVE STRICKER

While the John Deere Classic has struggled to draw big names into its field, largely due to the event’s pre-Open Championship position on the schedule, two popular players, both from close to the tournament’s Silvis, Illinois location, have consistently made the John Deere a priority, and have largely dominated its leaderboards: Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker.

Both players were, again, part of the 2017 story, and are highly likely to be in the 2018 mix as well.

Zach Johnson PGA Tour
Zach Johnson reacts after a birdie from a bunker on the eighth hole during the first round of the 2015 John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Illinois. Credit: Michael Cohen/Getty Images

Zach Johnson is a proud Iowan who has developed an excellent rapport with the local golf fan base. The 12-time PGA Tour winner, who boasts two major championships, has a near impeccable record at TPC Deere Run. Here are those recent results:

ZACH’S RUN AT DEERE RUN

2017: T5
2016: T34
2015: T3
2014: 2
2013: T2
2012: WIN
2011: T3
2010: T21
2009: T2

That makes seven top-5 finishes in his last nine attempts, with a victory and three runner-ups. Despite not coming into last year’s edition in his best form, a blistering start to his Sunday round had him in a familiar spot through 13 holes: the lead. A disappointing finish dropped him to T5, but yet again, Zach Johnson was part of the event’s story.

This season, the 42-year-old has been steady yet again with 10 top 25s in 18 starts this season, including a T12 at last month’s U.S. Open. Johnson continues to be tremendous tee-to-green and ranks 22nd on Tour in scoring average this season.

Steve Stricker John Deere Classic
Steve Stricker exits the first green during the final round of the 2012 John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run Silvis, Illinois. Credit: Michael Cohen/Getty Images

Like Johnson, Steve Stricker is a 12-time PGA Tour winner, but his John Deere history has arguably been even more impressive, a history highlighted by three consecutive victories, making him the most recent player on Tour to accomplish the feat:

STRICK’S RUN AT DEERE RUN

2017: T5
2016: T52
2015: T35
2014: T11
2013: T10
2012: T5
2011: WIN
2010: WIN
2009: WIN

Stricker got off to a rough start in last year’s event, shooting a Thursday 73 that was 13 strokes more than what he shot to start the 2010 edition, but a 65-64 weekend gave him a share of the Sunday lead at one point, before he had to settle for a T5.

At 51 years old, Stricker does not play a full PGA Tour schedule, and has not in years, but he remains productive when he does tee up against younger players. In just nine starts this season, he has made seven cuts, and posted four top-25s. He is coming off consecutive top-20s, including an impressive T20 at the U.S. Open.

Splitting his time between the PGA and the Champions Tour, Stricker has been downright dominant against the plus-50 crowd. In six 2018 starts, Stricker has two wins, two runner-ups, and has yet to finish outside the top five.


4. HEAT CHECK: FRANCESCO MOLINARI

The highest-ranked player in this year’s John Deere Classic field is World No. 15 Francesco Molinari, and given that he already has a spot in next week’s Open Championship, it may seem odd that he is teeing it up at TPC Deere Run, a course that is not comparable to Carnoustie, but regardless of his reasons, he is probably THE one to watch this week.

Francesco Molinari Wins BMW PGA
Francesco Molinari of Italy poses with the trophy on the 18th green after winning the 2018 BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in Virginia Water, England. Credit: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Molinari, a 35-year-old Italian is coming into the week as one of the hottest golfers in the world. His past four starts especially have been outstanding. In the last week of May, Molinari won the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s flagship event (their version of THE PLAYERS Championship) by two strokes over Rory McIlroy and three over Alex Noren. The following week, Molinari stayed in Europe and finished runner-up at the Italian Open, posting four straight rounds of 66 or better.

Coming stateside last month, Molinari then followed up a respectable T25 at the U.S. Open, with an dominating 8-stroke obliteration of the field at the Quicken Loans National.

His first career victory on the PGA Tour, Molinari was the 54-hole co-leader and then posted a sizzling final-round 62. His stellar iron game shined yet again, as he led the field in strokes gained: approach-the-green and greens in regulation.

That tee-to-green game has been a considerable strength of Molinari’s his entire career, but he has reached a different level this season. He ranks second to Dustin Johnson on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and is fourth in strokes gained: off-the-tee. He is still a little shaky with his putter, but he is striking everything else so well, he has not needed to rely much on the flatstick.

Unless Molinari completely loses his game at TPC Deere Run this week, he will be a popular pick to win his first career major next week at Carnoustie. He has been more competitive in recent majors, even finishing co-runner up at last year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.

This week will be his John Deere Classic debut, but in his current form, that lack of experience should not be much of a concern.

Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer. He is a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.

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