The only PGA Tour event in Illinois begins next week, and that means the return of Jordan Spieth. His victory in the 2013 John Deere Classic was one of the best feel-good stories in golf last year.
Spieth was just 19 when he survived a five-hole playoff with 2012 champion Zach Johnson and Canadian David Hearn to win last year's JDC at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, about a two-hour drive from Chicago on the outskirts of Moline. That made Spieth the youngest winner of a major pro tour event since Ralph Guldahl won the Santa Monica Open in 1931.
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Just a year earlier, Spieth was invited into the tournament as one of tournament director Clair Peterson's sponsor exemptions. He learned from that experience, turned pro and was an instant factor on the PGA Tour but the JDC is his only victory to date.
Peterson has traditionally invited promising young players -- this year he's bringing in college stars Cameron Wilson, Patrick Rodgers, Jordan Niebrugge and Steven Ihm -- and Spieth wishes other tournament directors would do the same. Most prefer to give their coveted exemptions to struggling older players who have supported their event in the past.
"Other tournaments need to look at this one as an example," said Spieth. "There's no way I win last year without getting those starts (off amateur invites). This tournament does it right."
Spieth was six strokes off the lead going into the final round last year, was nursing a sore wrist and made bogey on the first hole. Then everything came together, and he holed a bunker shot on the last hole of regulation play to earn his spot in the playoff.
"I had two shots that were more important than the bunker shot, but that one was the most exciting," said Spieth. "It was such a shock."
Spieth and Johnson, who is on the JDC board of directors, were partners in last fall's Presidents Cup matches and Spieth will play in Johnson's charity event on Sunday and Monday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before arriving at TPC Deere Run.
Since his win at Deere Run, Spieth finished second in both the Tournament of Champions and Masters, tied for fourth in The Players Championship, tied for 17th in the U.S. Open and climbed to No. 6 in the world rankings. He's the highest-ranked player in the JDC field.
"I've been so set on looking forward," he said. "I want to be the No. 1 player in the world, and I had opportunities to win again and didn't pull it off, so that goal is still out there."
At the JDC, he'll face another strong field that includes Johnson, three-time winner Steve Stricker and Winfield's Kevin Streelman, who shocked the PGA Tour with his come-from-behind win at Harford, Conn., in his last start. After missing four straight cuts, Streelman shot 28 on his final nine and one-putted his last 10 greens to win the Travelers Championship. Coming off a two-week break, Streelman will be on the chartered jet to the British Open as soon as the last putt drops at TPC Deere Run.
Pro-am play begins in Silvis on Monday, and there will also be a pro-am on Wednesday before the 72-hole tournament proper starts on July 10, when $4.7 million in prize money ($846,000 to the champion) is on the line.
Here and there:
The JDC comes three weeks after Illinois' only other pro tour event of 2014, the Encompass Championship at North Shore in Glenview. Next year the two events could be played on the same dates. The Encompass has announced a switch to July 6-12 in 2015.
• Peoria's Jordan Fahel won the 95th Chicago District Amateur last week at Hinsdale, beating Blake Johnson, 45-year-old Glen View Club member, 2 and 1, in the 36-hole final. Johnson, one of only two players over 30 to make the 16-man match play portion of the event, was in the final for the second straight year.
• Three Illinois club professionals came close, but none qualified for the PGA Championship at last week's Professional Players National Championship in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
White Eagle's Curtis Malm was the odd man out in a six-man playoff to determine the last five qualifiers for the PGA, and Conway Farm's Matt Slowinski and Illinois coach Mike Small both finished one shot out of the playoff. The top 20 club pros at Myrtle Beach earned spots in the PGA Championship.