July 12 2013
Zach Johnson shares the lead at the John Deere Classic, with Steve Stricker not far behind. (Cohen/Getty Images)
By Craig DeVrieze, Special to PGATOUR.COM
SILVIS, Ill. – Hawkeyes communing with Fighting Illini is akin to dogs sleeping with cats in this Mississippi River border burgh. But Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker just don’t seem to know how not to get along.
At the John Deere Classic, ardent Iowa fan Johnson and Fighting Illini grad Stricker are favorite sons. Stricker – who also mixes Wisconsin roots into this muddled Big Ten picture – owned a piece of the TPC Deere Run leaderboard for the better part of four years before a balky driver and a charging Johnson stalled his bid for a JDC four-peat down the Sunday stretch last year.
Johnson, the defending champion who grew up from 90 minutes west of the Quad Cities, hasn’t let loose of the tournament lead since then.
Grouped with their 2012 Ryder Cup Captain Davis Love III, Johnson and Stricker played side-by-side in the first two rounds of this year’s Deere affair. That could have been a combustible mix – if either of the favored JDC siblings contained an ounce of combustibility in their Big Ten DNA.
Thursday was Iowa Hawkeyes Day at TPC Deere Run.
Friday was Fighting Illini Day.
“Yeah, I got a lot of I-L-L chants and a big cheer when I birdied 17,” said Stricker, who donned his brightest orange shirt to note the occasion.
So did that stick in the craw of the Hawkeye guy?
“He was all right,” Stricker said. “He got a lot of Hawkeye love yesterday.”
Johnson at least tried to take the trash-talking bait when asked how those I-L-L chants struck him Friday: “I could fill in the blank with ‘a-n-n-o-y,’ but we won’t go there, will we?”
Well, technically, we just did. But nonetheless …
One thing that couldn’t be clearer is the level of admiration that Johnson, the 37-year-old whose nine career wins include the 2007 Masters, has for Stricker, who is nine years the Iowan’s senior and has three more wins on his resume.
“He is just a model of consistency,” Johnson said. “That’s the kind of guy you try to model your game after.”
Johnson especially wouldn’t mind being stricken with a case of Stricker’s famously effective putting stroke. And maybe he has been. In the midst of a subpar year, he came to TPC Deere Run ranked 101st in strokes-gained-putting. He is fifth this week.
“Ooh, that’s a good question,” Johnson said when asked if he putts better when he plays with a player who putts like Stricker. “Maybe. He just sets into it and it doesn’t look like he is going to miss. It’s fun to watch. Kind of gets you into that mode of trying to make putts yourself.”
Stricker, meanwhile, said it’s easy to feed off Johnson when he is playing well.
And especially here.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” he said. “He’s playing great. He obviously has a great feeling for this course, much like I do. It’s fun to play with him and it’s fun to feed off his energy and his crowd.”
The Hawkeye fan and the Fighting Illini will be separated in Saturday’s third round. Johnson, a co-leader at 12-under 130, will tee off an hour behind Stricker, who is three shots behind.
But given Stricker’s penchant for going low here – he had rounds of 63, 62, 61 and 60 while racking up his three straight wins – a final round reunion of these favorite John Deere Classic sons can’t be ruled out.
Maybe Sunday heat can bring this favored sibling rivalry to a boil.