SILVIS, Ill. – Any player standing on the 18th tee with a John Deere Classic title on the line late Sunday afternoon might want to take dead aim at the fairway bunker located just more than halfway up the left side of the finishing hole at TPC Deere Run.
Tournament organizers have proclaimed the 125-foot long, 65-foot wide sand trap as “The Champion’s Bunker.” It is a title the benign bunker earned the past two years by helping to produce two of the most dramatic tourney-winning birdies in the event’s 42-year history.
It’s where Steve Stricker stood when he laced a 6-iron 177 yards over water from a cockeyed, one-foot-in, one-foot-out lie to the back of the 18th green. That set up a 25-foot birdie putt that snared his record third straight John Deere Classic title.
It’s where Zach Johnson stood a year ago on his second hole of a sudden-death playoff with Troy Matteson. With the memory of having a rinsed a shot from very nearly the same position on the first playoff hole only minutes before, Johnson punched a 6-iron of his own to within a foot for a tap-in birdie.
Save for his career-defining 2007 win at the Masters, Johnson’s steely sand save led to a victory as coveted as any of Iowa native’s career nine on TOUR, and it sets up a 2013 event that might as well be known as “Zachapalooza.”
Born and raised 90 minutes west of the Quad Cities in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a playing member of the John Deere Classic Board of Directors since 2004, Johnson often refers to the tourney played on the Iowa-Illinois border as his fifth major.
In the wake of last year’s win, Johnson conceded the hometown breakthrough in front of throngs of fans clad in Iowa Hawkeyes black and gold may have been more meaningful than he previously had cared to admit.
So how does he expect to feel when he steps up to launch his title defense at 8:30 a.m. ET Thursday as part of a marquee pairing alongside Stricker and Davis Love III?
“I’ve got to be perfectly honest,” Johnson said. “The welcoming here is so warm regardless, it’s the support I have always received here. If I miss the cut, that ain’t going away.
“I want to retain some of those good feelings I had from last year, but, for the most part, I want to throw it away and go play.”
Stricker, the former University of Illinois star, brings out the orange-and-blue passion within this Mississippi River community. He tied for fifth last year behind Johnson in his bid to become the fifth player in pro golf history to win an event four straight years. His closing round of 70 was only his second outside the 60s in 15 TPC Deere Run rounds since he opened with an even-par 71 in 2009.
Stricker has gone 84 under over that 15-round stretch. That’s a scoring average of 65.4 that only Johnson has come close to matching. The Iowan finished T2, T21 and T3 during the course of Stricker’s three-peat, and he is 64 under par (an average of 67.0) in the past four John Deere Classics.
With wide fairways and large, receptive greens, Deere Run yielded the most birdies of any course on the PGA TOUR in each of the past two years. That’s the kind of scoring that isn’t likely to change this week.
“The greens are soft so you can be aggressive,” predicted Stricker, who at No. 20, is one of nine players in the top 25 of the FedExCup standings teeing it up here this week. “There’s been some rain and the greens are soft. The course is playing a little longer, but the weather is supposed to be nice so it’s going to get a little firmer. I think the scores are going to be pretty good.”
Other FedExCup leaders in a field tournament organizers are calling their strongest in a decade include No. 8 Kevin Streelman, No. 9 Boo Weekley, No. 11 Keegan Bradley, No. 16 D.A. Points, No. 18 Harris English, No. 19 Charles Howell III, No. 22 Ken Duke and No. 25 Scott Stallings.
Bradley (at 16) joins Louis Oosthuizen (10) and Stricker (11) as Official World Golf Ranking leaders chasing the 500 FedExCup points -- and winner’s share of a $4.6 million purse -- at TPC Deere Run. Bradley said he is looking forward to his John Deere Classic debut, and said he enjoys taking the tee on Thursday knowing low scoring is a prerequisite to contention.
“You really need to be ready to go from the first tee to the last because you’re going to have to make a bunch of birdies,” Bradley said. “If you hit the fairway, you’re going to be able to attack every pin.”
Maybe even from The Champion’s Bunker late Sunday.
“I was just walking past that bunker and I thought about exactly those two shots,” Stricker said after his pro-am round. “There has been some drama out of that bunker.”