By Tom LaMarre
Many of the best golfers in the world have already headed for Portrush, Northern Ireland, where the 148th Open Championship, the final major championship of the season, will be played next week at Royal Portrush Golf Club.
Still, a few of them have stuck around to play in the 49th John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill., including eight players who have won on the PGA Tour this season.
Michael Kim will defend his title against a field that includes Jason Dufner, Charles Howell III, Ryan Palmer, Pat Perez, Kevin Tway, Ryan Armour, Cameron Champ, Mackenzie Hughes of Canada, Martin Laird of Scotland, Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela, Troy Merritt, Whee Kim of South Korea, Danny Lee of New Zealand, Kyle Stanley and Russell Henley.
None of them are in the top 10 of the World Golf Rankings, but all have won on the PGA Tour in recent years.
“Obviously it was the best golf I’ve ever played for a week,” said Kim, who strung together rounds of 63, 64, 64 and 66 to break the tournament record of 27-under-par set by Steve Stricker and won by eight strokes over Francesco Molinari of Italy, who won the Open Championship the following week at Carnoustie.
“The win (and two-year exemption on the PGA Tour) allowed me to make (swing) changes that we thought were needed. There are definitely some growing pains. It’s taken a little longer than I had hoped or wished. Obviously. I’d like to play better, but I’m excited to see where my game will be.”
Also playing this week are former John Deere champions Zach Johnson, Ryan Moore, Brian Harman, Stewart Cink and Jonathan Byrd, plus four players who have made an impression on the circuit right after finishing their college careers—Victor Hovland of Norway, Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Justin Suh.
Wolfe, the reigning NCAA champion, became the first of that foursome right out of college to win when he captured the 3M Open last week.
Other up and coming stars in the John Deere field include Joaquin Niemann (pictured) of Chile, Sungjae Im of South Korea, Wyndham Clark, Sam Burns and Denny McCarthy.
Johnson is playing in the John Deere Classic for the 18th time and won it in 2012.
“This place is very special,” said Johnson, a two-time major champion who grew up not far away in Iowa City, Iowa. “I’ve embraced the fact that it’s a fun week for me because I have family, I have friends that come out. It doesn’t matter if I shoot 78 or 62 here, they’re still going to cheer me on.
“I’m certainly comfortable with the golf course, the greens and the bentgrass. With that comes confidence. Oftentimes confidence can breed momentum. It can just carry over week to week, month to month and year to year.”
The John Deere certainly isn’t the Open, but there are guys like Johnson who wouldn’t miss it.
- Joaquin Niemann, Chile – After posting consecutive top-five finishes in the Travelers Championship and Rocket Mortgage Championship, Niemann bounced back from an opening 73 with a 63 and eventually tied for 23rd in the 3M Open last week. The former top-ranked amateur in the world also tied for 23rd in his John Deere debut last season.
- Matthew Wolff, United States – Proved he was a winner when he captured the NCAA Championship in May while at Oklahoma State, and reiterated that last week by winning the 3M Open in his fourth start on the PGA Tour. Wolff did it in style, too, making a 26-foot eagle putt on the last hole, after finishing 50th or worst in his first three pro starts.
- Sungjae Im, South Korea – The 21-year-old rookie, who won twice last year on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour, figures to join the other first-time winners on the PGA Tour soon. He has six finishes in the top 10 this season, including a tie for third in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and ties for fourth in the Safeway Open and Valspar Championship.
- Zach Johnson, United States – The 2012 John Deere Classic champion has only one top-10 finish this season, a tie for seventh in the RSM Classic, but TPC Deere might be the place for him to get back on track. He is playing in the event for the 18th time and has placed in the top 10 six times in the last eight years, including second in 2013 and 2014.
- Collin Morikawa, United States – Matthew Wolff beat him with an eagle on the final hole last week in the 3M Open, where Morikawa barely missed an eagle putt that would have forced a playoff. That was his fourth pro start, as he tied for 14th in his debut at the RBC Canadian Open, tied for 35th in the U.S. Open and tied for 36th in the Travelers.
- Brian Harman, United States – Claimed the first of his two PGA Tour victories by one shot over Zach Johnson in the 2014 John Deere Classic after opening with a 63 at TPC Deere Run. Posted another 63 and tied for 10th in the tournament last year. Harman is coming off a tie for eighth in the Travelers and a tie for seventh in the 3M Open.
- Ryan Moore, United States – The last of Moore’s five PGA Tour victories came in the 2016 John Deere Classic, when he beat Ben Martin by two strokes. He also tied for seventh at TPC Deere Run in 2014 and tied for eighth in 2012. Moore tied for second in the Safeway Open to start this season and finished solo third in the Valero Texas Open.
- Viktor Hovland, Norway – Another of the young guns who has shown he is ready for the PGA Tour after being the low amateur in the Masters and U.S. Open, Hovland tied for 13th the last two weeks in the Rocket Mortgage Classic and the 3M Open, shooting par or better in all eight rounds. He tied for 54th in his pro debut at the Travelers.
- Wyndham Clark, United States – Another promising PGA Tour rookie, Clark has carded 13 consecutive rounds under par and last week posted his best result, a tie for fifth in the 3M Open. It was his seventh finish in the top-25 this season, including three in a row after a tie for 15th in the Travelers and a tie for 17th in the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
- Mackenzie Hughes, Canada – After just missing his second PGA Tour victory when he tied for second in the Corales Puntacana Resort Championship, Hughes has three other finishes in the top 25, including a tie for eighth in the Charles Schwab Challenge. The Canadian, who won the 2016 RSM Classic, tied for 16th in the 2018 John Deere Classic.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH – Troy Merritt, United States; Adam Corey Conners, Canada; Michael Kim, United States; Martin Laird, Scotland; Danny Lee, New Zealand.
- Harold Varner III, United States – Finished solo sixth in the John Deere Classic last year with four scores in 60s. Has eight top-25s this season, including a T-6 at Mayakoba.
- Arjun Atwal, India – Was in the conversation all the way in the 3M Open with three scores in the 60s before a 70 left in a T-23. Best finish in John Deere was T-18 in 2011.
- Sam Burns, United States – The 22-year-old Burns finished T-7 last week in 3M Open with a closing 64, his third top-10 this season to go along with six results in the top-25.
- Denny McCarthy, United States – Winner of the 2018 Web.com Tour Championship and leading money winner, had T-7 in Sanderson Farms and T-9 in Valspar this season.
- Carlos Ortiz, Mexico – With three birdies on the last four holes, Ortiz shot 64 last week to tie for fifth in the 3M Open. Earlier, he tied for third in the Sanderson Farms.
For first-round tee times visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard.html