The age of instant information reached new heights on July 5 just past noon on the East Coast when young Rickie Fowler found out he, along with Jeff Overton and Davis Love III, had been extended invitations into next week’s Open Championship.
“Just found out I will be taking the @JDCLASSIC Charter flight over Sunday night to play in the British Open next week!” Fowler Tweeted.
That’s right, it wasn’t his spot in the 150th playing of the game’s oldest championship or the storied links of St. Andrews that rated the 140-character announcement, it was the John Deere Classic’s special 767 charter from Moline, Ill., to Scotland.
Amid talk of “designated tournaments” and whispers of contraction as more and more tournaments struggle with reluctant sponsors and weak fields, the Deere folks seem to have it figured out.
“Out date has become our advantage,” Deere tournament director Clair Peterson said.
Historically tournaments slotted directly before or after major championships have fallen into two categories – warm ups or worse, afterthoughts.
In 2008 Peterson added the “Air Deere” charter to sweeten the pot for players who like to play the week before a major but didn’t like the travel options from Moline to the United Kingdom.
The year before he started the charter the Deere had seven players in the field that had qualified for that year’s Open Championship. “Every one of them had problems with their luggage (getting to the United Kingdom). It was a disaster,” Peterson said.
In 2008 the number of qualifiers jumped to 22 players and last year there were 23 who took advantage of the charter. This year 27 players will fly “Air Deere” to Edinburgh.
“Before when guys would qualify for the British they would apologize for not being able to play (the John Deere), now they can come,” Peterson said. “These guys all have to get to the British Open somehow some way.”
The charter is non-stop, features 100 first-class seats and costs $1,250 per person, which is donated to the Birdies for Charity foundation, and the results of Peterson’s creativity are easily quantifiable.
This week’s John Deere Classic features three players in the top 20 in the World Golf Ranking (No. 4 Steve Stricker, No. 19 Zach Johnson and No. 20 Tim Clark). The exact same number of top-20 players, by the by, that were in the field at last week’s AT&T National, an elite invitational unencumbered by the long shadow of major championship.
“Stricker is the perfect example, a guy who wouldn’t be here otherwise, it gives them a chance to win and now you could have the No. 4 ranked player in the world as a defending champion,” Peterson said.
It’s a lemons to lemonade deal.
The Travelers Championship followed the Deer’s lead, adding a charter from the U.S. Open to Hartford, Conn., and has enjoyed similar results.
“It is a part of helping our field. If we just did the charter, I am not sure (how much it would help). But we combined the charter with a half dozen other player-wife-caddie initiatives and I think the entire package helps our field,” Travelers tournament director Nathan Grube said of this year’s charter which shuttled 40 players from Pebble Beach to Hartford.
“I think our field has gotten stronger every year due to the entire recruitment package, of which the charter is a piece.”
All of which makes last week’s extended conversations about a possible “designated tournament” proposal that much more interesting. Although the gulf between the haves and the have nots on the PGA Tour docket seems to widen with each year, there is a Darwinistic reality that must be considered.
Saddled with a less-than-attractive date, one a week before a major the other a week after (Travelers), Peterson and Grube focused their energies on improving the product, not running down a new date or pushing for mandated participation, an option the independent contractors have resisted.
Perhaps Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the rest of the marquee will never grace a leaderboard at TPCs River Highlands or Deere Run, but Grube and Peterson have made sure they have one less excuse and given the rest of the frat brothers a reason to come.
If the designated tournament proposal – which currently enjoys widespread support from most players and tournament directors, including Peterson – becomes a reality the Tour will be better for it. The question, however, is whether the mandate will stymie the type of creative marketing that has made Hartford and Moline “must play” events for some players?