Course Insight: John Deere Classic Preview
With The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale just around the bend, it might be tempting to overlook this week’s John Deere Classic. Ask any golf junkie however and they’ll tell you that would be a mistake. The John Deere has been putting on a show with exciting finishes for years, and it’s been a springboard for the next wave of superstars with Jordan Spieth being the poster child. This year’s field of 156 players is the strongest since the tournament moved to TPC Deere Run in 2000, and includes defending champion Ryan Moore, major champions Zach Johnson and Bubba Watson, and a healthy crop of young talent like Si Woo Kim, Daniel Berger, and Bryson DeChambeau.
Built on the site of a former Arabian horse farm, TPC Deere Run is a relatively young track by PGA Tour standards and might be one of the more underrated courses in the TPC Network. The 7,256-yard par-71 rolling layout stretches across wooded ravines with an amazing variety of holes and elevation changes migrating through stately oak and sycamore trees. Narrow fairways peppered with more than 70 bunkers, menacing blind shots, and gentle doglegs compel precision over power.
GPS view of the 561-yard 2nd hole from the 18Birdies app
The beauty of TPC Deere Run is you have to move the ball to score well, and shot-makers rule the day. It won’t reward the bomb-and-gouge style of play with thick, sticky rough and uneven lies all around. Players who think they can simply play target golf will be humbled quickly. Circumstances dictate what shots should be played, and negotiating your way around the course is necessary to put up red numbers.
Green complexes are deep but narrow, and protected by diverse groups of bunkers, shaved slopes into chipping areas, and threatening ponds and rivers. Distance control will be decisive in recording birdies or double-bogeys. Putting surfaces are slippery, but you’ll still see a lot of long putts made as they don’t feature many undulations and are relatively easy to read.
The par-5, 561-yard No. 2 usually plays as the easiest hole on TPC John Deere, and that remained true last year. It plays shorter than the stated length thanks to an elevated tee box 50-feet above the fairway. Drives played down the left side will have the best chance of reaching in two, with the only real trouble being a fairway bunker near the landing area. Precision on approach is required as the small green is two-tiered and protected by wetland on the left, and bunkers and trees on the right. Last year the 2nd hole surrendered an abundant 203 birdies, while only sighing out 46 bogies or worse.
No. 14 is a par-4, 361-yard, risk-reward hole that’s potentially drivable for the big hitters. It’s all downhill until you reach the green, which is so small and elevated that if players come up short or left off the tee their approach will be partially blind. Missing long is even more treacherous with a 60-foot bluff that can lay waste to a scorecard and immediately make players regret going for the green in one. Eagle is possible here, but so is a six or worse.
TPC John Deere’s signature hole is the short, par-3, 158-yard 16th. It’s defended by a massive bunker on the left which sits inside a shale rock collection that drops down to the Rock River, and another sizable bunker on the right. Missing long could send balls careening down a bluff. The river shouldn’t come into play off the tee except for the most appalling of shots, but will exert a sneaky pull on the putting surface. Despite not having much real estate, No. 16 demands the utmost precision and attention.
Statistically, the most difficult hole on the course, the par-4, 476-yard finishing No. 18 gave up only 65 birdies last year while dishing out 116 bogies or worse. It’s essential to find the left side of the fairway off the tee for the best angle on approach, but still avoid the bunkers on that side which will make an already difficult approach even more problematic. The brutally narrow green is guarded by a long victory-robbing pond on the left, and two hulking bunkers on the right. Back pin locations will elicit spectacular Sunday drama.
Players To Watch
No one is ever going to forget Zach Johnson’s reaction in the final round here in 2015 when an Air Cannon went off and sent the two-time major champion career jumping in the air like MC Hammer. Johnson finished second that year and his 2013 victory shows his game is tailored to a course like TPC John Deere. We haven’t seen the kind of precision ball-striking we’re used to from Johnson all season, and despite being a favorite this week, don’t expect things to turn around for him as he tunes up for the Open Championship. Johnson’s struggles hitting Greens-In-Regulation this year (he’s ranked 166th on Tour) can’t be overlooked, and is the main culprit for his five missed cuts in 16 starts. Johnson is too comfortable here to miss the cut, but he won’t be a factor all week and won’t finish inside the top-25.
Daniel Berger has put together an impressive season so far with a victory at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, and runner-ups at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions and most recently the Travelers Championship, and he’s an outstanding shot-maker. TPC John Deere, however, is a course that will give him fits, particularly because he hasn’t been sharp off the tee this season (ranked 98th in Driving Accuracy), and his iron game has been inconsistent and lackluster (ranked 39th in Greens-In-Regulation). The 2015 Rookie of the Year is ranked 14th on Tour in Birdie Average, which will be a key statistic in any tournament that produces the kind of low scoring we’ll see this week, but Berger isn’t likely to see many real scoring opportunities this week if he’s playing from the rough and missing greens. Berger will struggle to make the cut and finish outside the top-25.
Seven of the last eight winners at the John Deere Classic posted final scores of 20-under or better (some 19-year old kid in 2013 named Spieth only scored 19-under), and the key has always been Greens-In-Regulation. Last year ten of the top-13 finishers were inside the top-8 in greens hit for the week, and if you’re going to play the hot hand, look no further than “The Professor,” Bryson DeChambeau. The 2015 U.S. Amateur and NCAA Champion has only one top-10 finish in 24 starts this year, but he’s trending in the right direction. With T-26, T-17, and T-14 finishes in his last three events, signs are pointing towards DeChambeau figuring things out, and they key for him has been iron play. Last week at The Greenbrier Classic, DeChambeau found the Promised Land at a spectacular 83.3% clip, and with his putting coming around in recent weeks as well, Expect Bryson to punch his ticket to the Open Championship with his maiden victory on Tour this week.