Stricker starting to become favorite co-son in Quad Cities

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Steve Stricker has captured the hearts of several fans over the years at the John Deere Classic.
July 14, 2012
Craig DeVrieze, special to PGATOUR.COM

SILVIS, Ill. - Three years ago, Zach Johnson - a native Iowan, player representative to the John Deere Classic's executive board and the Hawkeye State's second major champion alongside Jack Fleck -- was the JDC's undisputed favorite son.

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Johnson has a brother in that role now, a co-favorite at the very least.

And the only conclusion to the 2012 John Deere Classic that might thrill the locals more than a Johnson victory -- in what he has called his fifth major -- would be to see Steve Stricker lift the deer-adorned trophy for an historic fourth straight time.

Stricker's run of four straight birdies on TPC Deere Run's back nine on Saturday afternoon helped book him a spot in Sunday's final twosome, but he will have his work cut out if he's going to join Young Tom Morris, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Tiger Woods as the only men to win the same event four times in succession.

Stricker is in second place alone but trails wire-to-wire leader Troy Matteson by three shots. Johnson, meanwhile, will start Sunday four shots back and one group ahead, tied for third with rookie left-hander Brian Harman.

A gentleman golfer in the mold of the two pursuing favorites, even Matteson appreciates what a win by Stricker or Johnson might mean to the fans, the tournament and the PGA TOUR.

"It gives people a reason to really come out and watch," Matteson said. "It's just good that those two guys are up there."

Neither Stricker nor Johnson, for the record, had much interest in promoting a sibling rivalry.

As a board member, Johnson understands the JDC can gain a minor, but memorable measure of golf history with a so-called Stricker Slam.

"I love the guy," Johnson said of Stricker, whose home in Madison, Wis., like Johnson's native Cedar Rapids, is mere hours away from TPC Deere Run. "Seems like the tournament and the fans embrace him, which they should. If I can't win, I wouldn't mind seeing him win."

Stricker holds Johnson, a Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teammate, in equally high regard and knows that a win by the Iowan would be special for both the player and the event.

"Zach and I get along very well," he said. "We root for one another. I think it would mean a lot for Zach to win here. He has been close here and I have been the guy in his way, I guess. Which I feel good and bad about."

Johnson has made more starts at TPC Deere Run - 11 - than any other event on TOUR. He struggled through the first eight of those to embrace the expectations -- his own more than anyone else's -- that came with playing just more than an hour from his former home. But he tied for second behind Stricker in 2009, shared third a year ago, and Saturday's round of 66 was his 15th straight sub-70 effort at TPC Deere Run.

Stricker, of course, has been significantly better at the par-71, 7,259-yard course. He is 109 shots under par over his past seven starts in Silvis, Ill., and is an incredible 83 under in his past 14 rounds, starting with the second-round 61 that launched him to the first of three straight wins in 2009.

That victory, his third in a run of nine on TOUR since 2007, might merely have been another very interesting chapter in the four-decades-long history of the JDC. Instead, the stoic and understated golfer has made this underrated, small-town event -- a proud and resilient annual stop on the PGA TOUR since 1971 -- the centerpiece of a personal history worthy, at least, of a few paragraphs in the long history of professional golf.

It is a remarkable read, the tale of Stricker's three straight JDC wins, each chapter better than the last, each win more interesting, historic and dramatic.

The first served to highlight Stricker's self-sustained mid-career resurgence from a slump that saw him drop to 337th in the world and then rise as high as No. 2 in 2009. In 2010, Stricker started his defense 12 shots behind Paul Goydos' history-sharing Thursday morning 59 but trailed by just a shot at the opening round's end. In the history of the TOUR, a 59 and 60 had been shot only once in a matter of a year. Stricker went on to post a two-shot win over Goydos to join David Frost and Deane Beman as back-to-back winners in the Quad Cities.

A year ago, his 72nd hole birdie produced the most dramatic finish in JDC history. It was owed to a pure, water-carrying 6-iron from an awkward fairway bunker lie, a shot that ranked as the best of the PGA TOUR year until Bill Haas splashed his way to the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and the FedExCup title. It was a shot epic enough to induce a Tiger-worthy fist pump from the typically undemonstrative Stricker when his 25-foot putt completed a comeback from two down with two holes to play.

That was a defining moment for the resilience that has linked Stricker to the John Deere Classic and this Mississippi River-straddling, blue-collar community every bit as much as his modest, Midwest roots. In that manner, JDC tournament director Clair Peterson agreed, this second favorite son has become the face of a tourney and a town.

"If you're looking to define it as a Midwestern, down-to-earth, straightforward, appreciative world-class player, it would be hard to think of another one," Peterson said.

Unless, of course, you're thinking of Johnson, who is himself a self-made champion. He was the No. 4 player at low-profile Drake University as a junior but now is No. 8 in the world and an eight-time TOUR winner. His seven wins since 2007 trail only Tiger Woods' 20, Phil Mickelson's 11 and Steve Stricker's nine.

"Zach is beloved as much as Steve," Peterson said. "There are plenty of people aching for that Zach Johnson win here."

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