Farewells suit John Deere Classic director to a tee

SILVIS – Doug Milne has sat alongside Tiger Woods and every other big name in the game of golf the past 15 years as a PGA Tour media official.

However, he said his greatest honor came during the just-completed John Deere Classic, when Mr. Milne hosted a farewell interview with retiring tournament director Clair Peterson on the Media Center stage.

Mr. Milne remembered his own self-doubts that Mr. Peterson helped dispel before the first event he ever worked for the Tour: the 2007 JDC.

“I do have a say-so in where I get to go and this is one of the four tournaments that I haven’t missed and I don’t plan to miss,” Mr. Milne said, pointing to Mr. Peterson’s mixture of kindness, decency, generosity, and passion. “There’s no one better.”

However, Mr. Milne was hardly alone in offering that popular opinion during the 51st version of the local PGA Tour stop, which wrapped up Sunday with a 21-under par, wire-to-wire win by 29-year-old pro J.T. Poston.

“Clair is great. I see him at other tournaments on the road all the time (recruiting) and he’s always been super nice saying hey to me,” Mr. Poston said during his champion’s press conference. “I didn’t realize that he was stepping aside after this year, so thank you Clair for all that you’ve done with this tournament. It’s very much appreciated. I’m honored to be your final champ.”

“Clair’s unbelievable,” agreed Lucas Glover, the 2021 JDC champ and 2009 US Open winner. He’s “done a great job and everybody knows him, everybody loves him, and he will be missed.”

Zach Johnson of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was the JDC champ in 2012 and three times earned runner-up honors during Mr. Peterson’s 20-year tenure as tournament director.

Mr. Johnson also was twice a sponsor’s exemption to help get his career jump-started – in 2002 and 2003 – marking Mr. Peterson’s transition from Deere & Co.’s sponsor liaison to succeed Kym Hougham, who was recruited away to another PGA Tour event.

Additionally, Mr. Johnson – a Masters (2007) and British Open (2015) winner — has served alongside Mr. Peterson for years on the JDC’s Board of Directors.

“I think the Quad Cities — I don’t want to say they’re in debt to him — but they need to applaud him,” Mr. Johnson said, pointing to the tournament’s many successes since Mr. Peterson’s involvement started in 1997 when Deere agreed to sponsor the then-floundering hometown event.

“I don’t work intimately with other tournament directors, so it’s maybe not fair for me to actually sit here and critique the others. But what I can say is Clair has been passionate about his work – and why he does his work. There’s not a stone that he doesn’t turn over to see if we can make it better, more efficient, and more effective.

“You can see that with the people he surrounds himself with and how he goes about his day-to-day operations. … We’ve got great tournament directors (on Tour), but I’m partial to this one. It’s an honor for me to have been more than just a player in the field to be associated with him.”

Peterson’s clear impact

Mr. Peterson’s “why” has always been the JDC’s role as a fundraiser for local charities.

With the addition of a bonus program in the last two decades to the Tour’s already standard-setting Birdies for Charity program, the tournament raises more than $12 million annually now for nearly 500 non-profit organizations.

And with continued improvements as a hospitality provider benefiting those charities, the JDC will surpass the $150 million mark since Deere assumed sponsorship after figuring in this summer’s sold-out options.

The tournament also benefits the local economy – more than $54 million last year, according to Visit Quad Cities estimates – and the JDC’s exposure globally through the PGA and TV partner CBS continues to help the locally-based title sponsor.

“They quantified a couple years ago that they sold $130 million worth of ag equipment just to guys that have played in the Pro-Am the last 10 years,” Mr. Peterson said, noting 600 Deere business contacts were in town during this year’s tournament.

Mr. Peterson’s “how” also is deeply rooted in Deere’s relationship-based culture, which led to another large part of his legacy in the success stories coming from JDC sponsor exemptions awarded to upstart pros.

Besides Mr. Johnson, the list includes major tournament winners such as Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau, Jason Day, Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, and Jon Rahm.

“I didn’t start it. I was on the executive committee with Kym when we invited Lucas Glover and Zach Johnson and others,” said Mr. Peterson, whose first JDC as tournament director in 2003 was won enroute to the world’s top ranking by three-time major winner Vijay Singh.

“I certainly believed that was a way to start relationships that could over time pay off with players coming back who had accomplished great things and it did. I’ve compared it 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.

“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. And there’s some that were more highly ranked out of college that we didn’t give spots to, just because we didn’t think they checked all the boxes.”

That philosophy has helped the JDC in the annual battle of being scheduled between the U.S. and British Opens — when many elite players are seeking a break to prepare for the next major. The local PGA Tour stop also has been opposite the Olympics, Ryder Cup and President’s Cup.

“I like to say we hit for the cycle,” Mr. Peterson joked about those challenges, which forced him to be a tireless recruiter on the road during other events. “So, our history is not always to have the top-10 players in the world here.”

Yet, this year’s returns included Mr. Day, who earned his first check here before rising to the No. 1 ranking in the world a few years ago. Mr. Simpson also came back, he said, to expressly thank Mr. Peterson for giving him his big break.

“When it comes to my peers, they’re like, ‘Man, I wish I could play this year because I love Clair,’” Mr. Johnson said before making his 20th consecutive JDC start. “Or along the same lines, ‘Yeah, I’m going to come this year because Clair keeps getting on me.’”

“That’s the value of relationships,” Mr. Peterson added. “There’s not an expiration date on ’em.”

Power of Peterson’s positivity

As a long-time marketer for Deere, Mr. Peterson also used his deep understanding of the event sponsor to help further the brand and strengthen the company’s community commitment.

“I don’t think it’s unfair to say that if it weren’t for Deere this event would have been gone,” Mr. Peterson said, remembering the late 1990s when Hardee’s abruptly ended its sponsorship.

“Having a world-class respected brand like Deere as title sponsor changed everything. Donated the land (for the golf course), provided the equipment across the entire (PGA) network. So, we are the envy of many events because of the depth of the relationship we have. They’re a mile and a half up the road. If we need to talk to anybody, decision-making wise, they’re right there. And they’re fully invested in what’s going on here.

“Their involvement in being a good corporate citizen is critically important to them. I remember when I first went through my orientation when I came out of college first as a Deere employee, they go, ‘We want to improve the quality of life in the places where we do business.’ That had nothing to do with a golf tournament — that’s in their DNA anyway. So, the charitable effect of the tournament means a lot to ’em.”

As Mr. Johnson noted, few PGA events are based in the hometowns of their title sponsors. Mr. Peterson said that proximity also has paid off in Deere realizing the local PGA Tour stop’s impact on their business.

“They weren’t necessarily as aware I don’t think of the power and reach of a PGA Tour event” 25 years ago, Mr. Peterson added. “But when you see that excavator with the driver head (at the course) and know that it’s being seen in 226 countries, that’s pretty powerful.

“I would say that there are other events that are envious (of the relationship), but we never have taken that for granted and we always want to make sure that they get their money’s worth. Because if they ever decide not to renew, it’s going to be hard pressed to find another title sponsor with that kind of strength.”

The transition from Mr. Peterson to long-time understudy Andrew Lehman began last fall when Mr. Peterson moved to an executive director advisory role.

Mr. Peterson officially walks away from day-to-day duties in December. However, he will remain a presence at tournament headquarters in the Stone House on the Deere Run course as a Player Liaison.

“That’s why I can’t be too sad about it,” said Mr. Peterson, who most specifically assumes control of the difficult job of recruiting 28 players for the Monday Pro-Am. “Some of those relationships that I’ve developed I can keep going, as well as learning the new wave of PGA Tour players.”

During this unofficial farewell tour, Mr. Peterson resisted any attempts to identify his favorite memories.

However, he did reveal his ultimate foursome to include Mr. Johnson, two-time JDC champ Mr. Spieth, and three-time JDC champ Steve Stricker – who was forced to withdraw from this year’s JDC at the last minute because of a lingering back injury.

“It’s gone by quickly,” Mr. Peterson said. “I consider it one of the great blessings of my life because before this I led a pretty narrow Deere existence – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But this event led me to meeting all of our great board members and other volunteers, all of our sponsors, and all the great people on the PGA Tour.

“That’s what I really remember and I’m thankful for more than anything.”

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