Two months ago Steve Stricker opened an e-mail and came face-to-face with the design for this year's John Deere Classic billboard. He promptly responded to tournament chairman Clair Peterson with a text. "Who is that guy?" Stricker asked. "I never do that!"
The billboard shows the moment that electrified the Quad Cities last summer—Stricker shouting and giving an emotional fist pump. He had just holed a 25-foot putt on the final green for an amazing birdie after an even more amazing shot from a fairway bunker.
It was the shot that won Stricker a third straight John Deere Classic—or simply the Deere, as locals call it. And it was the shot that put the Deere on the golf map. The Deere has long been a beloved PGA Tour stop for players who enjoy the event's small-town hospitality. It is the only connection to anything major league in the Quad Cities, where summers are almost quiet enough to hear the corn grow and folks are understandably proud of their slightly-off-the-beaten-path tournament. (You want to stump contestants on Jeopardy!? Ask them to name the Quad Cities. The question, Alex: What are Rock Island and Moline, Ill., and Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa?)
The Deere, thanks to Stricker's historic run, gave the area an identity.
"All year long, a week didn't go by that somebody didn't stop me in the mall or the grocery store to talk about the finish," Peterson says. "It was Tiger-like. Remember that Canadian Open and Tiger's six-iron from a bunker over a lake [in 2000]? It's not unreasonable to describe Steve's finish here that way. And Steve was the top-ranked American in the world when he did it.
"There's a pride in having a guy like that carry your banner. Steve has redefined our event the last four years."
Stricker's run at history came up short last week, but just barely, as Iowan Zach Johnson won the Deere in a wild playoff over Troy Matteson (page G4). Stricker made his points, however. One, the Deere is a big deal in a small market, and there's nothing wrong with that. His giant head protruding above the billboard's border, and its accompanying GET PUMPED! and STEVE GOES FOR THE STRICKER SLAM messages weren't simply advertising gimmicks, they were a monument. The billboard's location—along the busy four-lane road that passes John Deere Co. headquarters and leads to TPC Deere Run—was perfect. Stricker's visage stands between two Midwestern icons—a towering marker for Blain's Farm & Fleet store and a sprawling new Menards home center. "Yeah," Peterson says, "you can see Steve while you go in and buy work gloves."
Two, Tiger Woods doesn't have to be in the field for an event to be a success. For one week in July over the past four years, Stricker was better than a reasonable facsimile. "Here," Peterson says, "he is Tiger Woods."
Stricker's effect on the Deere was absolutely Tiger-like. He drew motivation from Tiger himself, after Tiger needled him the previous week at the Greenbrier. "Only one guy here has won four in a row," he told Stricker. Woods meant himself—he's in company with Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Young Tom Morris. Tiger added, "Get it done."
Stricker, three shots back of Matteson after three rounds, wasn't able to pull it off on the closing nine in Sunday's humidity. He had three curiously pulled drives, a couple of missed putts—his fearsome putting stroke is currently on the fritz—and maybe, just maybe that extra four-peat mental baggage weighed him down. "I wasn't worried about four in a row," Stricker said afterward. "I was trying to win the tournament." Still, the man who had been unbeatable at Deere Run beat himself this time. "It was weird," he admitted. "I didn't feel as if something good was going to happen, you know?"