SILVIS – Zach Johnson is more than a former champion of the John Deere Classic.
The two-time major tournament winner from 90 minutes away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has always championed the local PGA Tour stop to his fellow pros both as a member of the JDC’s Executive Board and a Deere & Co. brand ambassador.
So, when this weekend’s rival event in Portland, Oregon – in the upstart and controversial LIV Golf Invitational Series was mentioned during a pre-tournament press conference this week – the 2023 Ryder Cup captain offered an unsurprisingly strong defense of the JDC and the other “regular” PGA Tour events like it.
“I have some friends that have decided to go (to LIV),” acknowledged Mr. Johnson. “I want them to do well. I want them to find contentment or happiness in whatever it may be. It’s not for me to say how that develops or how they find that.
“I will say I have the utmost respect for them individually. I would hope, and I’m not concerned about this, that they would have the respect for me and who I stand for and what I stand for. And I don’t think it’s very secretive or outlandish in saying that I’m for the PGA Tour. I’m for the individuals that paved the way for me in this great tour — this platform — in order to entertain, compete and I would say utilize for the betterment of others, not just my family. I’m for that.
Mr. Johnson added, “I’m for 40-plus weeks on tour. I’m for those venues. I’m for those cities that pour in basically 358 days a year for that one week. I’m for them. Because these tournaments do so much for the communities we stop in. And it may be seven days to us, but it’s not to them. … So, I am for the PGA Tour. I am for the growth of the game through the PGA Tour.”
LIV emerged as a threat to the PGA Tour this spring, with the Saudi Arabia-backed circuit poaching some of the world’s top names and best players with the promise of multi-million dollar guarantees.
The first LIV tournament was in early June near London with 19 of the world’s top 100 players either appearing or committing to other LIV events. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has suspended 17 PGA Tour players who left for the financial rewards of a rival roundly criticized for ties to the oppressive and violent Saudi regime.
This weekend’s LIV event is the first in America – and the backlash includes protests from the families of 9/11 victims who believe the Saudi’s were not held accountable for their country’s role in the terror attacks.
Mr. Johnson also spelled out another PGA Tour response in his pre-tournament talk by noting next fall’s US Ryder Cup team – including his captain’s picks – will be based on Ryder Cup points accumulated in PGA Tour events.
“Do I think (LIV) affects this tournament? It’s so raw and so new it’s hard for me — it’s hard for anybody — to say that it’s going to,” said Mr. Johnson, the 2012 JDC winner and champion of both the Masters (2007) and British Open (2015).
“My hope is that it does not — and my ever-optimistic brain says it will not — because of what’s already established here. I think players are starting to see that, you know what, it’s pretty darn good where we are right here. We’re starting to see some young guys even come out and say, that aren’t even on the PGA Tour – ‘you know what, I had a dream of playing on the PGA Tour and that’s the route I’m going to go,’” he said.
“So, I’m encouraged by that. I’m encouraged by our leadership of the PGA Tour and how they’re continually sticking to their guns, knowing that the product we have are the people we have,” Mr. Johnson added.
During the 20-year tenure of outgoing JDC tournament director Clair Peterson, the JDC has gained a well-earned reputation as a launching pad for some of the game’s best talent.
Mr. Peterson somehow found a steady stream of the stars of tomorrow and offered them sponsor’s exemptions into his 156-player field. In most instances, those leaps of faith paid off in loyalty, which led one-time exemptions including Mr. Johnson and other former major winners such as Jason Day and defending JDC champ Lucas Glover back to the TPC at Deere Run this weekend.
Jordan Spieth also famously returned during his historic chase of golf’s Grand Slam in 2015.
“LIV really doesn’t change the way we do business,” Mr. Peterson said. “We have always been up against big events – the British Open, the Olympics, the Ryder Cup. So, naturally we have struggled to attract the top-10 type of players – which meant we had to find a different way to survive and keep offering a high-quality event that greatly impacts our community.
“So, while there’s 48 players in Portland this weekend – none of those guys were going to come here anyway. So, it’s not like we lost out on anybody. They weren’t going to be in our field,” he said. “But we do have 156 players here who are world class — and just because you haven’t heard of them yet doesn’t mean they’re not great.”
For example, Mr. Peterson pointed to one of the weekend favorites, Sahith Theegala.
“Nobody knew him at the start of the year, and he almost won last week, almost won in Phoenix, and he’s here this week,” Mr. Peterson added. “He’s got a future that is as large as anyone that’s come through here — and we almost were the first win for Tiger (Woods).
“How about the Chicago kid, Nick Hardy? He just finished 15th in the US Open two weekends ago. There’s dozens of kids and stories like that out here. They’re hungry and they’re working hard, and they want to ascend and do great things to establish a legacy.
“None of that’s going on in LIV. For those players, their legacy quite honestly is behind them. They’ve won their US Opens or other majors and they’re just getting a big payday now.”
Indeed, Mr. Peterson said, the only similarity between the JDC and LIV are both golf events that teed off Thursday.
“Our tournament goes over four days. It has 72 holes and a cut halfway through, just like a normal event that’s been going on for 100 years out here on the PGA Tour,” Mr. Peterson explained.
“There’s something about a 72-hole event that really identifies the best players. If you were just giving trophies away for who led after three rounds? (LIV leader and Golf Hall of Famer) Greg Norman would have won every one of the majors in 1986 when he had the Saturday slam. So, it’s not a proper event, really in our opinion.
“It’s an exhibition. It’s a shotgun start. It’s with players who get guaranteed money. There’s really not a whole lot of drama. There’s also no tradition. And they come into town, and they leave town with really no impact comparison to what we do.”
Meanwhile, the JDC packs a massive punch for the Quad Cities.
“This event succeeds for a title sponsor who develops relationships and has a brand presence in 200-plus countries,” Mr. Peterson said. “It means a lot to the community by delivering $54 million in economic benefit.
“We make a charitable impact every year of $12 million-$13 million and $145 million over the life of this event. And there’s a quality-of-life impact, with people having something to look forward to participating in and taking pride in each year. LIV will leave Portland and not be doing all the positive things that we’re doing here.”
However, that does not diminish the threat LIV poses to the PGA Tour as a whole in terms of sponsorships, individual events and TV contracts which run through 2029.
“It’s disruptive for sure,” Mr. Peterson said. “But the tour already has reacted in some ways that I think will preserve and protect the regular events like us.
“One of the things they just announced is that there’s going to be a regular season again from January to August — and obviously with a June or July event like our tournament, which means we will have more value as all these FedEx Cup points become even more meaningful when they only take 70 players to the season-ending playoffs. So, from that standpoint, we think that we’re in pretty good shape.
“For us, though, we are always focused on things we have control over, and that’s how we have survived for 51 years now.”
Mr. Peterson frets about the feeling of entitlement from some pros jumping to LIV.
“It’s sad because they’re forgetting where they started at events like ours,” he said, “and the reason that they have name recognition value is because of the PGA Tour and all the other golf associations where they’ve won their 72-hole events.”
But then, Mr. Peterson points to the hope shining through in sponsor exemptions such as Quinn Riley this weekend, who Wednesday professed great appreciation for the path paved by legends like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer – and for all the grassroots events like the JDC that continue to help grow the game.
“Thankfully,” Mr. Peterson concluded, “there are plenty of guys to root for here this week.”