Pedigreed pursuers chasing surprise JDC leader

Brendon Todd
Brendon Todd from Athens, Ga., gives a fist pump on the 18th hole after finishing the third round as the leader at 16 under par, Saturday, July 8, 2023, during third round action of the John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis. CREDIT JOHN SCHULTZ

SILVIS – Brendon Todd’s new caddy embarrassingly dropped his bag Saturday on the 15th hole at TPC Deere Run.

Besides sharing a good laugh with anyone watching – including a worldwide TV audience on CBS — the 37-year-old Pittsburgh native responded by dropping a surprise himself at the 52nd annual John Deere Classic.

With three birdies on the back nine holes – including the bag-dropping 15th – Mr. Todd surged into the lead at the $7.4 million local PGA Tour stop.

At 16-under par and up by a stroke heading into today’s final round, the journeyman looks to put the exclamation point on a recent career resurgence with his fourth PGA Tour victory — but first win since 2019.

However, a whopping 12 players are within three strokes including 2022 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and second-round leader Cameron Young, defending JDC champ J.T. Poston and 2021 JDC winner Lucas Glover. All three are at 13-under for the tournament.

The lengthy list of pursuers also includes pedigreed players such as Denny McCarthy, Adam Schenk and Chris Kirk – all three starting this week ranked safely inside the Top 30 for next month’s 70-player FedExCup Playoffs. Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Schenk are both a stroke back at 15-under; Mr. Kirk is also at 13-under.

“It’s going to be hard to run away and hide here,” said Mr. Todd, whose bogey-free, 5-under, third-round 66 was highlighted by an eagle at the par-5 second hole and a 46-foot birdie putt on No. 16.

“It’s a very bunched leaderboard with a bunch of great players who are looking to go low. The winner can come from anywhere, so I’m going to have to go out there and treat it like I’m just in the bunch trying to shoot the lowest score.”

Mr. Todd’s career includes $15.5 million in earnings and four Top 25 finishes in Majors – but also is contrasted by time playing on minor tours such as the Korn Ferry,, Nationwide, NGA Hooters and Tarheel.

The definition of a “grinder,” he has won, lost and re-won his PGA Tour card several times since debuting as a rookie in 2009 after earning his spot from the Nationwide Tour.

Mr. Todd nearly retired to become a restaurant franchise owner in 2018 after missing 37 of 40 cuts to fall out of the top 2000 golfers in the world and failing to get through the second stage of Tour qualifying school.

However, he won twice in 2019 — at the Bermuda Championship and Mayakoba Classic – and held a pair of 54-hole leads in 2020 but failed to win tournaments. He also just missed earlier this season in a runner-up finish at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

“Anybody who is within three shots of the lead is looking to go as low as they can (today),” said Mr. Todd, who has only one bogey balanced by 15 birdies and that one eagle so far this week – posting a 66 Thursday and 65 Friday.

“So, there’s certainly going to be no defense for me. It’s going to be the same stuff. If I have a wedge in my hand, I’m going for it. Par-5s you have to make birdies, and a little bit longer club, you can hit it on the green and give yourself a chance.”

A win today would allow Mr. Todd to leap 29 spots from 53rd  into 24th in the FedExCup playoff points race. The Top 70 reach next month’s first of three rounds of playoffs.

However, for many of those chasing the veteran, the $1.332 million champion’s check would mark their first PGA Tour victory – which extends their Tour card for two more seasons and guarantees trips to the British Open in two weeks and Masters next spring.

With Major tournament winners Jordan Spieth, Payne Stewart and Bryson DeChambeau among the local launching pad’s 23 first-time winners, maiden victories have become the JDC’s calling card.

Among those looking to become the sixth first-time winner in the last 12 years today at Deere Run are Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Schenk and a third pursuer at 15-under – Alex Smalley.

A 26-year-old New Yorker and Duke University product, Mr. Smalley fired Saturday’s best round – a 9-under 62 – to climb into contention following a 1-under 70 on Friday. An eagle on No. 2 highlighted a seven-birdie, no-bogey third round.

Mr. Smalley started the week 55th in the FedExCup standings with $2.2 million earned so far this season. The closest he’s come to winning in 61 career PGA Tour starts was a runner-up finish at last season’s Corales Puntacana Championship.

“I don’t see why it couldn’t be,” said Mr. Smalley, who started his PGA Tour career at the JDC as one of four survivors from Monday’s qualifying tournament in 2021. “If I play like I did (Saturday), I feel like I have a pretty good chance.”

Another surprise name on the leaderboard is another long-shot qualifier.

Peter Kuest emerged from Monday’s qualifying tournament last week to contend at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit.

The 25-year-old Californian only earned entry into the JDC with a Top 10 finish last Sunday in Michigan.

Now, a week later, the former Brigham Young University star earned Special Temporary Membership on the PGA Tour by surviving another weekend cut.

And he’s in title contention again, sitting in fifth at 14-under to start the final round of his 11th PGA Tour start.

A third-round 66 featured six birdies and no bogeys. In back-to-back 67s in the first two rounds, Mr. Kuest survived five bogeys and a double bogey.

“It was great. It was a lot of fun being in contention and getting under the gun a little bit and getting after it,” Mr. Kuest said about his Cinderella experience last weekend.

“I’m not going to try to do anything different at all. I’m going to go out and play and play my game to the best I can, and hopefully it all works out.”

Along with Mr. Poston, also sharing a rental house again this week in rural Geneseo, are fellow contenders: Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Kirk and Sepp Straka (12-under, tied for 14th). Only housemate Patton Kizzire missed the 36-hole cut.

Mr. Todd was also their housemate last year but has family with him at a local hotel this week.

“We’ve got a lot of good golfers that are all staying together,” said Mr. McCarthy, a 30-year from Maryland.

“We’ve been playing a bunch of games at the house, too — throwing frisbee, baseball — we’re all pretty good at that stuff, too. We’ve been playing cards, board games, outdoor activities, so it’s been fun. Once you leave the golf course to go back to the house, everyone is there, and you just kind of jump into whatever game they’re playing at the time.”

Mr. McCarthy hopes to earn house bragging rights today and earn his first PGA Tour win after a 5-under 66 Saturday.

In his career’s latest and greatest close call, Mr. McCarthy was the runner-up last month at the Memorial, falling in a one-hole playoff.

“I know it’s going to come,” said Mr. McCarthy, who started the week 24th in the FedExCup standings with 20 of 24 cuts made, five Top 10 finishes and $5.7 million in earnings this season.

“I’m playing a lot of good golf, and I keep putting myself in this spot. It’s not easy to win golf tournaments. A lot of the top guys out here make it look really easy, but it’s really not. You have to have a lot of things go your way on top of playing really good golf, and it just hasn’t quite matched up for me yet, but I know it’s coming.”

Mr. Schenk is in the same spot – contending at 15-under and seeking his first PGA Tour win to stamp a solid season. He started the week 51st in the world rankings and 26th in the FedExCup standings.

The 31-year-old former Purdue star hopes a large following of family and friends helps in today’s final round. Mr. Schenk hails from five hours southeast of the Quad Cities on the Illinois-Indiana border in Vincennes, Indiana.

“In a sense, it’s not up to me if I win,” said Mr. Schenk, who closed a 4-under 67 third round Saturday with a pair of birdies.

“I will go out and play the best I can. If someone shoots another 62, they’ll probably win. If I shoot 62, then I’ll probably win.”

Failing to build on his two-stroke mid-tournament lead Saturday was Mr. Young, the world’s highest ranked player in the JDC field at No. 19, and the runner-up at the British Open last summer.

His frustrating even-par third round included a terrible finish – finding both a sand trap and then green side pond on the final hole – to add two strokes to his tournament total with a double-bogey. Mr. Young also suffered bogeys on Nos. 6 and 7 Saturday and sits at 13-under to start the final round.

Mr. Young shares the dubious honor of a PGA Tour record six runner-up finishes without scoring his first career victory.

Heralded Swedish import Ludvig Aberg also moved in the wrong direction on the Tour’s fabled moving day.

Mentioned among the JDC’s pre-tournament favorites despite only turning pro last month, Mr. Aberg remained at 10-under after an even-par third round Saturday.

The 23-year-old European Ryder Cup hopeful became the world’s top-ranked amateur last fall before becoming just the second repeater as the U.S. College Player of the Year in May.

On the flipside of moving day, first-round leader Jonas Blixt shared the second-best round Saturday with a 6-under 65 to climb back into contention after an even par posting Friday. The three-time Tour winner from Sweden also is in the group at 13-under.

Of the local favorites, Zach Johnson from nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa, improved by four strokes Saturday to sit at 8-under in his 21st consecutive JDC start. The U.S. Ryder Cup captain is a longtime JDC board member, having won the local PGA Tour stop in 2012 between victories at the 2007 Masters and 2015 British Open.

Nick Hardy, the 27-year-old former All-American from the University of Illinois, shaved only a stroke off his tourney total Saturday and sits at 7-under. He started the week in 44th in the FedExCup playoff chase and hopes to avoid losing ground with a strong finish today.

Of the other familiar names — nine-time PGA Tour winner Matt Kuchar is at 2-under after a 2-over third round while Mr. Straka’s counterpart in the Top 40 of the world rankings, Russell Henley, is 6-under after a 1-under Saturday.

Only 18 of the 69 weekend players failed to score better than par Saturday despite cool and windy conditions making the course more difficult than the day before, according to several players.

Third round tee times were delayed over three hours by overnight storms, forcing threesomes going off from both holes No. 1 and 10 instead of the customary two-player weekend groups starting at the first hole. That format returns for today’s final round, though, starting at 6:55 a.m.

Worldwide TV coverage is 2-5 p.m. on CBS. The Golf Channel also provides coverage today from noon-2 p.m. Grounds passes for today were sold out last week with Grammy Award-winning country music star Blake Shelton performing in the “Concerts on the Course” series after the champion’s trophy is presented.


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