Zach Johnson hits his tee shot. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo
While most of the golfing world prepares for the return of the sport to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years, a fierce battle is set to be waged beginning Thursday at the $4.8 million John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill.
With only two events remaining before the start of the FedExCup playoffs at The Barclays Aug. 25-28, the John Deere Classic provides a pivotal opportunity for those hanging around the bubble for the top 125 players to qualify. All but two players ranked from Nos. 120-135 will be in the field this week.
Other notables include 2012 winner Zach Johnson, who has done no worse than tie for third at the event every year since 2011, three-time event champion Steve Sticker (2009-11) and former top-ranked amateur Jon Rahm, who makes his sixth career professional start as he seeks to earn his PGA Tour card for next season.
Johnson is from an hour away in Iowa City, Iowa, and will make his 15th consecutive start at what he considers a home event. The JDC has typically been played in July, but was moved to August this year due to the jumbled schedule created by the Olympics and the Ryder Cup.
"I'm excited for the week," Johnson said. "I mean, it's just a little bizarre it's this week rather than July, but that's a whole 'nother subject. It's never a bad time to be in the Quad Cities."
The top four players in the world opted not to play in the Olympics, which included third-ranked Jordan Spieth, who is also the defending JDC champion and a two-time winner of the event. In announcing he would skip the Rio Games, Spieth also said he would not defend his title in Iowa.
"I don't think it would be an appropriate move to play that week," Spieth said last month.
That leaves the door of opportunity open for the 152-player field, headed by Johnson, who enters as the 22nd-ranked player in the world, followed by Kevin Na (No. 34).
"There are a lot of factors probably involved," Johnson said when asked about his success at the JDC. "I'm certainly comfortable with golf course. I'm certainly comfortable with these greens and the bentgrass. I'm certainly experienced here.
"With that comes confidence, I think. Oftentimes confidence, like I've said, can breed momentum. It can just carry over week to week, month to month, year to year."
With eight of the top 100 players in the field, it also leaves plenty of room for those hovering around the FedExCup bubble to earn critical points with next week's Wyndham Championship serving as the final pre-playoff event.
"I do think it's a little unfortunate that it's the first week of the Olympics," Johnson said. "You can look at it a number of different ways. There are only two weeks left before the playoffs start. There are only so many weeks left of Ryder Cup points. There are a lot of things at stake, so guys want to play and get some points here and there. There are incentives there."
That includes Camilo Villegas and Brendon de Jonge, who skipped an opportunity to play in the Olympics so they could attempt to pick up FedExCup points in Illinois. Villegas enters the week No. 146, while de Jonge is No. 150, making this a critical tournament for both players. The current line for The Barclays sits with Johnson Wagner, who sits precariously in the 125th spot with 405 points. Wagner finished in a tie for fifth in this even last year.
Rahm could throw another wrinkle into the equation with a victory this week. Playing on Special Temporary Members status, Rahm is not eligible for the FedExCup playoffs unless he wins an event. He already has 424 non-member points, and the former Arizona State star has a tie for third at the Quicken Loans International and a solo third at the Canadian Open among his first six professional starts.
"I don't think you ever achieve perfection in this game," Rahm said when asked if he's a perfectionist. "The closest we've had to perfection we've had is Tiger, and we all know he was looking for it every single day.
"I'm more of a feel player. Whatever I feel that day is what I do."
Not only are there 500 FedExCup points on the line, but a $864,000 winner's share. Spieth beat Tom Gillis in a playoff after the two tied at 20-under in regulation last year, so there are birdies to be had, and Johnson doesn't expect the course to play much different just because the tournament is a few weeks later this year.
"My guess is won't be a whole lot different," he said. "I mean, I grew up in this area. July and August seem to be one month out here. It's hot, humid.
"If it was down South there is summer and really hot summer. Up here it's different. I'm assuming it's not going to be a whole lot different."