Iowa’s Caitlin Clark’s star shines bright at JDC Pro-Am

Caitlin Clark JDC
University of Iowa Women's basketball standout Caitlin Clark, signs autographs for fans as she walks off the ninth hole, Wednesday, July 5, 2023, during Pro-Am action at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Illinois. CREDIT JOHN SCHULTZ

The TPC at Deere Run greens turned black and gold on Wednesday, July 5, as a sea of Iowa Hawkeye fans – many wearing No. 22 – flocked to the John Deere Classic Pro-Am and crowded around the hero of the day: Caitlin Clark.

Arguably the best, most decorated player in women’s college basketball, she was part of the group led on the front nine by Ludvig Aberg, 23. The native of Eslove, Sweden, is the former World No. 1 amateur and the top player in the PGA Tour University rankings. Later, on the back nine, Ms. Clark’s group featured 2023 Ryder Cup Captain Zach Johnson, a JDC hometown hero.

On Wednesday, the always polite JDC crowds shared their applause throughout the daylong event for players who were not named Clark, but she was the star of the show. Hundreds followed her from hole to hole, while grabbing the bits of shade they could find on a still, hot, humid day. 

Caitlin Clark JDC
University of Iowa Women’s basketball standout Caitlin Clark hits out of the green side bunker on the sixth hole, Wednesday, July 5, 2023, during Pro-Am action at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Illinois. CREDIT JOHN SCHULTZ

Ms. Clark said she was busy “trying to make as much time as I can to sign an autograph for a young kid or give them a ball or give them a high-five because that goes a really long way.”

In fact, it was a highpoint of her day, she told reporters following the Pro-Am.

“It’s just cool getting to interact with all the young kids that were here today and really enjoy being around them,” she said. “I used to run around golf courses and want to go to golf events when I was a young kid or basketball events, and it can really change your life if they can have one interaction with you.”

It clearly had an impact on the army of young girls clad in Iowa black and gold, many wearing the name Clark on the backs, and more than a few boys who ringed the ropes at each hole.

Ms. Clark’s presence clearly brought a lot of non-golf fans and casual ones to the JDC.

Susan Hamman is among the latter. She hadn’t been to a JDC since Bill Murray played at the TPC five years ago. She took advantage of the celebrated comedian and actor’s 2018 appearance to bring her father, Donald Hamman of Eldridge, Iowa, a JDC fan who was then in his mid-80s, to the JDC Pro-Am while he was still able to enjoy the experience.

This year, the draw for Ms. Hamman was twofold: Caitlin Clark plus a pair of free passes provided by Lowe’s to military veterans. Ms. Hamman gave her spare ticket to a friend whose JDC visit began with getting hit in the stomach during an errant shot from an apologetic player. She had a bruise to tell the tale but it didn’t stop her from following Ms. Clark around the front nine, sometimes with a QCBJ reporter in tow. 

Still, not all eyes were solely on Ms. Clark when her group teed off. A contingent of Dubuque, Iowa, area fans were focused mostly on 13-year-old Henry Thiers. His mother, sisters and other family members proudly watched him tee off on the first hole and throughout the event. They told the QCBJ they were thrilled with his inclusion in Ms. Clark’s group and proud of their junior star’s performance, which also caught the eye of a few sports reporters.

In the post-match Pro-Am press conference, at the JDC Media Center at TPC Deere Run, Mr. Johnson was asked to comment on the young man the reporter said “looked to me to be sensational.”

“Great kid, Henry from Dubuque, Hank. Really good golf swing. Hits it in the middle of the (club) face,” Mr. Johnson said. “I was impressed with how he read putts. You know, if you are around the game as much as I am, there’s an art to that. When you get on greens of this nature, it’s hard. It’s hard to putt … they’re fast, so speed is everything. This young man saw the breaks, saw the line. At that age, he was impressive.”

So was Mr. Aberg, the young pro who led the group on the front nine. “He was a great guy, No 1,” Ms. Clark said. “He was very soft-spoken, very kind, but I think he said this was just his fourth pro event, which is pretty incredible. I think he has a really, really bright future, but he was awesome. Not as loud and as outgoing as Zach is, but he can definitely strike the ball. Yeah, he is going to be a fun one to watch. I’ll definitely keep my eyes on him.”

Caitlin Clark JDC
University of Iowa Women’s basketball standout Caitlin Clark reacts after hitting her drive shot on the par 3, seventh hole, Wednesday, July 5, 2023, during Pro-Am action at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Illinois. CREDIT JOHN SCHULTZ

Regarding her own performance, Ms. Clark reported a mixed bag. Ms. Clark is an avid fan of the game and began playing golf with her dad when she was “a little kid,” she said. After a break, she took it back up in college but rarely gets a chance to play due to her basketball and other commitments. And when she does play it’s usually nine or 12 holes.

“So this is a little much for me, but it was fun.” 

“I like to think I hit a few good shots,” she added. “I wasn’t as good down the end, but there was a couple that were really good, especially on the first tee, I hit a nice drive, which was fun.”

For Mr. Johnson, a Cedar Rapids native, the JDC is home turf. He was reminded Wednesday that the 2023 event that kicked off today is his 21st JDC start. When asked if he felt like the mayor of the JDC, he quipped. “I don’t know about mayor; more like jester.”

Ms. Clark also got a taste of Mr. Johnson’s humorous side when he joined her group for the first time at the 10th hole. “He is a funny guy,” she said. 

“Really?” Mr. Johnson deadpanned. “My wife, can she hear that?”

One thing the seasoned pro takes seriously is the JDC. “It’s well-documented that this is a home for me,” he told reporters. “I don’t really know how else to put it. I love coming back here. If I need to list the reasons why, we could be here for awhile, but it really starts and ends with the people and certainly what this community is all about. I would say what the Midwest is all about.”

Mr. Johnson also credited the Moline-based agricultural and construction equipment giant for the tournament’s growing success. “Having a relationship with John Deere and knowing what their priorities are, their prerogatives are for this community, it just makes it extremely easy and a highlight every year,” the former JDC champion and longtime board member said.

Why did Ms. Clark choose the JDC Pro-Am for her first PGA event? She said she doesn’t have much time for tournaments, “but obviously this one means a little more. It’s close to where I’m from. A lot of Hawkeye fans can come to this and support the community, so it was an easy yes.”

Caitlin Clark JDC
Former John Deere Classic champion Zach Johnson from Cedar Rapids, hugs University of Iowa Women’s basketball standout Caitlin Clark on the 10th hole, Wednesday, July 5, 2023, as they got ready to play the back nine at the Pro-Am at the John Deere Classic in Silvis IL. CREDIT JOHN SCHULTZ

She added: “Then obviously getting to play alongside Zach. I think this one is a little different, a little more special to me than any other pro-am that I could probably play in.”

Mr. Johnson, a die-hard Hawkeye fan, told the media he’s a fan of Ms. Clark, the Iowa womens’ team, coaches and the Hawkeye organization as much for what they do off the court as on it.

“I just think that’s the way you handle yourself, with integrity and class. But you work your butt off, and if success comes, you’re going to have fandom. It’s just the way it is,” Mr. Johnson said.

“Now, specifically this young lady on my right is transcendent given her talent, but I can’t speak highly enough about how she handles herself, whether it’s in interviews or just the way she goes about her work,” he added.

“Obviously she’s had a lot of awards and success, but she always goes back to her team. I have a team myself, and that’s where I go back to because, as I’m assuming Caitlin would attest to, I don’t want to speak on behalf of her, but you can’t do it alone regardless of what the sport is or endeavor is.”

How did Mr. Johnson feel about taking a backseat to the woman of the hour?

“Yeah, that’s awesome, man,” he said. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Wednesday’s JDC is the most recent line on Ms. Clark’s growing resume that includes Women’s College Basketball National Championship game, National Player of the Year and the Honda Cup. She was asked Wednesday how playing with the Ryder Cup captain compared to those accomplishments.

“I think it’s really different, and that’s what makes it so unique and so special is not many people have this opportunity, and to do it essentially 45 minutes from where I get to play basketball in our state is pretty cool,” she said of the JDC. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here.

“But I think it’s just really unique and special, and it’s different. I haven’t had many opportunities where I get to play a different sport at a PGA TOUR event. As many of you know, I’m a big fan of golf. I love to play it and be around it. I think it’s just really fun. Every Sunday I usually have the TV on and am watching.”

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