SILVIS — D.A. Weibring is not the least bit shy talking about one of his favorite golf course builds.
However, the Illinois native also loves listening to others talk about TPC Deere Run, the host course for the John Deere Classic, the annual PGA Tour stop in the Quad-Cities.
He recalls a moment from one of the last times he played in the tournament that he won three times before it moved to his creation.
“We were on the back of the sixth tee. I hit my tee shot and walked to the right and there was a marshal back there by himself,” Weibring said. “He had probably been out there all day as loyal as those volunteers are. He was a quiet guy and he took a couple of steps over to me and leaned into my ear and said 'I've got to tell you … We're really proud of this golf course.'
“That was it for me. Somebody from that area being proud of the golf course and happy that it's there. I knew we had a good thing.”
When play opens today with the John Deere Golf Pro-Am, that “good thing” known as TPC Deere Run will be hosting its 20th professional event.
And what a 20 years it has been since Michael Clark II won the first John Deere Classic in 2000.
What started out having to be derailed from being perceived as a potential April Fool's Day joke has become a staple of the PGA Tour. Deere Run has proven to be one of the gems of the TPC Network in its smallest market and proved a winning combination that has made for a success story for the ages for Deere, the tournament and the Tour.
"The John Deere Classic has become one of the Midwest’s signature sporting and entertainment events," said Sam Allen, chairman and chief executive officer of Deere & Company. "Year after year, the tournament provides millions of dollars of support for local charities and serves as a global showcase for the John Deere brand and its products.”
Instead of facing more struggles to remain viable until Deere's participation, the tournament has thrived. The accomplishments tell the story:
• The JDC has raised $107 million for charity, 98% of that since 2000 with the help of Deere's support;
• Next year, the tournament reaches a magnificent milestone, celebrating its 50th anniversary;
• Already, Deere & Co. is the third-most tenured sponsor on the PGA Tour behind Honda (1982) and AT&T (1986).
All are remarkable accomplishments.
It all began officially on April 2, 1997. That was the day of the official announcement that Weibring and his design group were partnering with the PGA Tour to bring a TPC course to the Quad-Cities that would offer a unique feature — it would be semi-private and open for public play.
“Tim Finchem (then the PGA Tour commissioner) called me and said that we have a deal done,” recalled Weibring of the original unprecedented nine-year arrangement. “We've got a date set for an April 1st press conference. I paused on the phone and said, 'This is too big of an announcement, we can't have this be an April Fool's joke.' I said, 'No, we can't do that.'”
While it conflicted with the commissioner's schedule, he agreed to making the announcement a day later.
Deere became the presenting sponsor for two years and the final tourneys at Oakwood Country Club. The tournament moved to Deere Run for the July 2000 event and the partnership was sealed. The course needed some polishing still for that first event, but it laid the groundwork for a bright future that is cemented through at least 2023.
“Around the millennium, there was some magic to that,” said Weibring of 2000 being pinpointed for the Deere Run debut.
Now, 23 years after that announcement, Deere Run has proven to be as much, if not more, than anyone ever thought it could have been. It was recently ranked as the No. 2 course in Illinois to play and is the drawing card for the top pros in the world each July.
“Twenty years into it, I think it's something everyone is really proud of,” said tournament director Clair Peterson of Deere Run reaching the 20-year milestone. “It was ranked only behind Cog Hill No. 4, where they used to have the BMW Championship and is a premiere property. It's certainly nice to get the recognition it deserves.”
As much as the course means to the tournament, though, the JDC also does its due diligence to help set the stage for the course. The JDC has drawn numerous honors from the PGA Tour, including being voted the 2016 Tournament of the Year on the PGA Tour.
“It's not gone unnoticed or unrecognized,” Peterson said. “When people ask me, and we're one year from our 50th anniversary, it's a community success story. There's a sense of pride with this event and the property falls into that, having pride in having this golf course here in town that allows us to continue to be successful.”
That all goes back to the early vision Weibring had for the 280-acre property along the banks of the Rock River. The former Hewitt family horse farm was destined for greatness from the start and that was because of the layout designed by Weibring and Chris Gray of PGA Tour Design. It was brought to life by Larry Denton and his crew that did the dirt moving and shaping.
It has received the stamp of approval from some the game's biggest and most recognizable names. Weibring noted that fellow players Davis Love III, Chip Beck and Paul Azinger among others were impressed by the layout in its early stages and told him not to change a thing.
“It really is an awesome piece of property that we have and is as good as any in the network,” Deere Run general manager Todd Hajduk said. “I hear that from many people and not just me because we're proud of it and very much vested in it. We get the guys who come through all the TPCs, even the rules officials, say it's such a special place and a special course — one of the best D.A.'s ever done.”
And amazingly, in the 20 years since the course opened, very little has changed with the design proper. A fairway bunker has been added on the left side of the dog-leg right No. 2 fairway “to turn your eye,” according to Weibring. The pond on that hole was also re-shaped. A couple of tee boxes were expanded and the 15th and 16th greens were softened in the back left corners to allow for new pin placements. As is common, bunkers have been upgraded.
Sixth-year superintendent Alex Stuedemann has put his touches on the facility from agronomic and aesthetic standpoints and has the course in the best shape of its young 20 years despite some tough growing conditions for cool-weather bent grass.
But the original design has remained untouched, which in this day and age is almost unheard of.
“It really hasn't changed; you look at what they do at Augusta, what they do at Murifield Village and at other places constantly, we haven't touched it,” Weibring said, noting famous almost total rebuilds.
That's because the design — including a fantastic finishing five holes where rounds and tournaments can be turned upside down — was perfect from the start.
“I got a letter from an editor at GolfWeek, he played it when we just opened it,” Weibring said. “He said this is going to be one of the great golf courses in America. His compliments were just off the charts.”
Weibring said that a respected and trusted friend, Oscar Miles, a renowned superintendent, checked out the course shortly after it was built.
“He did core samples of every green and looked at everything and wrote me a report,” Weibring said. “That report started out with the line: 'I didn't know I was going to see the Augusta of the Midwest.' He thought that much of the course and what we had done.”
To say Weibring is proud of this project is obvious. He will tell anyone who listens that he thinks “this is a top 100 course.
“There are great courses that come on board all the time, but I think this one is going to stand the test of time,” he said.
The first 20 years have set a good precedent “for anyone who has played or experienced it,” Weibring said. “I've never heard anybody say they didn't like it.”