Clair Peterson’s tenure as tournament director transformed the John Deere Classic
June 29, 2022
By Craig DeVrieze , PGATOUR.COM
- June 29, 2022
Clair Peterson on his time as tournament director of John Deere Classic
SILVIS, Ill. — Zach Johnson has an insider’s perspective on the uniquely close relationship between this week’s PGA TOUR event and its title sponsor of nearly a quarter-century.
“How many events do we have on TOUR where from 2 green you can walk to the headquarters of your title sponsor,” said Johnson, a native Iowan whose ties to the John Deere Classic run deep. Not only does he count the tournament among his dozen PGA TOUR wins, but he’s also a player representative to the event’s executive committee as well as a brand ambassador for Deere & Company.
“There is actual true ownership here,” Johnson added. “There's just a unique sense of the title sponsor’s ties to the community. It's just a unique week.”
Unique also describes the sponsor’s ties to tournament director Clair Peterson, who is in his final year at the helm after leading a transformational period in the tournament’s long history.
Since 2003, Peterson has brought a rich understanding of Deere’s brand and culture to his role with the tournament. That understanding came naturally, considering he spent the first 28 years of his career in Deere & Company’s marketing wing. He was still a Deere employee “on loan” to the JDC for the first 18 years with the tournament. It’s an arrangement the Moline-based company uses to support other non-profits like the United Way.
If that level of close collaboration isn’t completely unique on TOUR, it is decidedly rare. And effective. It is a critical reason Deere & Company, which began its title sponsorship in 1999, now is the third oldest sponsor on TOUR.
Peterson will continue to serve as a liaison to players on TOUR, continuing to leverage strong relationships built through time and effort. Under Peterson, the John Deere Classic has earned a reputation for giving promising players early starts and launching the careers of young winners like Jordan Spieth.
Johnson, who was raised in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had no status on TOUR when he was granted exemptions in 2002 and 2003. Now he is a former Masters and Open Championship winner making his 20th consecutive Deere Run start, 10 years removed from winning his “fifth major,” the 2012 JDC.
“There's just distinct respect,” Johnson said of Peterson’s reputation among TOUR players. “Clair has always represented his role with the highest integrity and character. Clair Peterson is very special to the Quad Cities.”
The Deere’s location on a packed summer schedule — until this year, it had been scheduled the week before The Open Championship — has meant the strength of field has never compared favorably to many events. Yet, that has not hindered Peterson, Deere, and a strong corps of community volunteers in building an event that brings out strong crowds each summer, and, most importantly, meets the TOUR’s mission of supporting local charities in spectacular fashion.
For much of the past two decades, the JDC has claimed the distinction of per capita leader for charity dollars raised, enlisting its distinctly successful Birdies for Charity program to approach $150 million in charitable donations.
Staged in one of the smallest communities on TOUR, the John Deere Classic has won multiple year-end awards by vote of tournament directors. Those include Most Engaged Community, which it earned seven times in a span of 10 years, and, most recently, successive Best Title Sponsor Integration awards.
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Andy Pazder, the TOUR’s Chief Tournaments and Competitions Officer, said those awards speak well for the event, its sponsor, and, particularly, Peterson. As a past chair of the Tournament Advisory Council, Peterson is well-respected by his peers and, early-on, helped Pazder enhance the partnerships between the TOUR and event organizations across the PGA TOUR, the PGA TOUR Champions and the Korn Ferry TOUR.
“He is as responsible as anyone for making sure there are these great relationships across our schedule as anyone,” said Pazder, who made a special trip the Silvis on Tuesday to celebrate Peterson’s tenure.
Meanwhile, the unique relationship between Peterson and Deere & Company continues to pay dividends.
“There is no better brand ambassador for John Deere than Clair Peterson,” said Mara Sovey Downing, Deere & Company’s vice president for Global Brand Management and Corporate Communications. “Clair and I meet probably once a week, no less than that, throughout the year. Just pop into each other’s offices and talk about branding ideas and how we continue to elevate the event.”
A creative partnership between Peterson’s staff and Downing’s marketing team has led to such innovative ideas as a one-ton driver head attached to a John Deere excavator and a 325-pound, built-to-scale Ping Anser putter attached to a smaller excavator. Each is prominent at Deere Run and the latter is available for patrons to “swing.” Pictures and videos of both have traveled around the world via social media and exponentially grown Deere & Company’s brand awareness.
Downing said Peterson also has been instrumental in helping Deere entertain clients through the event and maximize brand messaging through annual tournament broadcasts on The Golf Channel and CBS. He also has worked to ensure those broadcasts reach every corner of Deere’s global marketplace.
“That’s what can happen through the power of having someone who truly understands how we want to position the brand in the marketplace,” Downing said. “We have done a lot of benchmarking to ensure we are doing the best we can in all the different elements that we measure for success, and we’ve exceeded in nearly every category.”
Andrew Lehman, who joined the John Deere Classic staff as an intern in 2005, will succeed Peterson in December. He said Peterson’s mentorship of the entire staff will ensure the event continues to grow. And continues to help grow the Deere & Company brand.
“We will try to do a little bit better each year,” Lehman vowed. “When you step on the grounds here, you will know you’re at the John Deere Classic.”