Two ‘favorite sons,’ Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, return to 2024 John Deere Classic after lengthy absences

Clair Peterson has waited a long time to welcome back what he called “two favorite sons.”

Peterson, the former tournament director of the John Deere Classic, once wooed a pair of teens – one a newly-minted 17-year-old pro from Australia and the other a 19-year-old member of the national championship-winning University of Texas team – to the northwestern corner of the Land of Lincoln and Silvis, Illinois, one of the cities referred to in these parts as the Quad Cities.

Jason Day, the Aussie, made his PGA Tour debut here in 2006 and cashed his first Tour check – for $8,200 – while Jordan Spieth, the Texan amateur, arrived in the summer of 2012 and went home with something every bit as valuable as money – confirmation his game was Tour ready.

Day came back five consecutive years, finishing T-5 twice, but hasn’t returned since 2011; Spieth won the title in 2013 and 2015 but hasn’t been back either. Peterson spoke to their various camps every year and made his pitch, even whispering sweet nothings in their ears on the range at Torrey Pines in San Diego in January 2022 that the tournament that July would be his 20th and final year as tournament director.

“Jordan was so gracious but I kind of felt like even at that point they had his schedule together and it wouldn’t work out,” Peterson said.

Day agreed to play in 2022 but ended up withdrawing before the tournament began citing a back injury. Peterson never took rejection personally as Day and Spieth both won majors among their 13 Tour titles and each reached world No. 1.

“It’s tough, once you’re getting into all the majors and the Signature events, you can play all over the world, it’s tough to build a schedule and include our event,” Peterson said. “But here they are this year coming back and recognizing that we gave them a spot, it’s exciting to have them here and that’s the value of the relationships, I think. There’s no expiration date on ’em.”

Spieth has been absent for nine years, but his victories are part of the tournament highlight reel that still play regularly in Peterson’s head. Competing on a sponsor’s invite as a pro in 2013, Spieth holed a bunker shot on 18 in the final round that got him into a three-man playoff with David Hearn and Zach Johnson.

“It was one of the biggest roars that I ever heard,” Peterson recalled.

Jordan Spieth defeated Tom Gillis in a playoff to win the 2015 John Deere Classic.

Spieth prevailed in a five-hole playoff, becoming the first teenager to win on the Tour since Ralph Guldahl in 1931. One year later, he came back for the pre-tournament media day and Peterson invited him to try to replicate the bunker shot. Spieth grabbed his sand wedge and three golf balls and jumped at the chance.

“He took one swing to gauge the sand. We didn’t count that one,” Peterson said. “And then what does he do? He went and sank the god-dog thing.”

Spieth finished T-7 in his 2014 title defense. One year later, Spieth won the Masters and the U.S. Open, giving him a chance at the British Open, held the week after the John Deere Classic at the time, to match Ben Hogan in 1953 and win the first three legs of the Grand Slam. The sentiment of the day was that Spieth should skip visiting America’s Heartland and get acclimated to the time change in Scotland and links golf for his best odds at making history. Spieth thought otherwise and honored his commitment to play — his agent, Jay Danzi, confirmed in a text to Peterson that he’d need three seats on the flight across the pond that the tournament always arranges for players heading to the British Open.

“It meant everything for him to come back against all the best advice,” Peterson said. “As far as I’m concerned he paid his dues for what we did for him in 2012 and 2013.”

Spieth won the 2015 John Deere Classic in another playoff – this time over Tom Gillis – and finished a shot out of a playoff in a tie for fourth with Day at the 2015 British Open, which was won by Johnson, who happened to be on the flight from the JDC with Spieth. Even more than Johnson, an Iowa native, past champion and unofficial tournament ambassador, and three-time champ Steve Stricker, who played collegiately at Illinois, Spieth was the player that Peterson was asked about most often when he made his rounds to drum up interest in the tournament. It’s taken nearly a decade for Spieth to defend his 2015 John Deere Classic title.

“Everyone can’t wait,” said Peterson, who plans to be there both as a fan and a volunteer this year. “They had $35,000 in ticket sales within a couple of hours after the announcement was made.”

Spieth and Day are both hoping that the friendly confines of TPC Deere Run, where they’ve both experienced past success, will spark their game. Day, who is ranked No. 28 in the FedEx Cup, has recorded just one top-10 finish in his last 11 starts while Spieth, who is No. 59 in the season-long standings, had failed to register a top 10 in his last nine starts.

The tournament also features its usual crop of promising stars, including Michael Thorbjornsen, who earned a full Tour card for finishing first in PGA Tour U, Luke Clanton, a 20-year-old Florida State University product who finished T-10 last week at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, and sponsor exemptions for Neal Shipley, a recent Ohio State grad, who finished as low amateur at the Masters and U.S. Open, and Jackson Buchanan, the reigning Big 10 men’s individual champ. Peterson compared choosing a sponsor’s invite to the process of selecting an initial public offering in the stock market with hopes of a return on investment.

“There’s no promise that there’s going to be success,” Peterson said, “but you try to do your homework and identify guys in this case that are going to be successful as athletes.”

In the case of Day and Spieth, those picks still are paying dividends all these years later.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek