JOHN DEERE: After a thrilling weekend in Detroit that saw Rickie Fowler pick up his first victory since 2019, the PGA Tour hops across Lake Michigan to the state of Illinois for one of the friendliest events on the schedule, the John Deere Classic.
Originally known as the Quad Cities Open, this tournament has been a fixture on Tour for over 50 years and has gained a reputation for a warm, welcoming atmosphere that stems from enthusiastic local support. In the past it’s generally been held the week before the Open Championship, which has resulted in many of the big-name stars staying home, but that has never dampened the excitement of the local fans, and you can be sure that the galleries will be swelling all week and the scene around the 18th green on Sunday will be raucous.
The crowds aren’t the only thing here that can be considered “friendly”– the host venue, TPC Deere Run, is a beautifully manicured parkland-style course that simply isn’t difficult enough to pose a serious challenge for the world’s best players. That’s not a knock on the place– sometimes watching the pros string together birdies is more fun than watching them struggle for pars– but it’s something that we should understand very clearly when handicapping the field this week. It’s taken 20-under or better to win this tournament in 10 of the past 13 years, and the three years it fell short of that number the winning scores were 19-under (twice) and 18-under. The fairways are wide and soft enough, the greens are receptive and smooth enough… if you want to collect the big check this week, you’d better bring your birdies.
As mentioned, this event has generally been held the week before the Open, but now that next week’s Scottish Open is a co-sanctioned Designated Event, the John Deere has been moved up a week. This has resulted in a slightly deeper than normal field, though the “no big names” issue remains, with the likes of Russell Henley (16.5) and Cameron Young (19.5) heading BETDAQ’s Win Market. Still, it should be a fun week, and the middle of the market is bursting with value. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Emiliano Grillo (39.0)- Grillo ended a long dry spell with his victory at the Charles Schwab Challenge six weeks ago, finally getting things together with the putter after years of sustained ball-striking brilliance. He now ranks in the top-half of the PGA Tour in putting average, 3-putt avoidance, and putting from 6 feet and in, and even though “top half” may not sound all that impressive, it’s a pretty remarkable feat when you consider how lost Grillo has been on the greens throughout much of his career. He’s still striking it beautifully, ranking 5th on Tour in driving efficiency and 41st in strokes gained on approach, and with his newfound putting confidence he’s a real threat, as he showed again at the Travelers in his last start, posting 15-under for the week to finish T15. He made his tournament debut here last year and finished runner-up, so he certainly knows his way around the course, and with the way he’s been playing lately I fully expect him to contend this week. He’s a great value at nearly 40/1.
Alex Smalley (47.0)- A decorated amateur who represented the U.S. side at the 2019 Walker Cup, Smalley has yet to make a big splash as a pro, missing the cut in 23 of his 61 career PGA Tour starts and rarely finding himself in contention. That said, he’s been playing the best golf of his career over the past two months, finding the top-25 four times in his last seven starts, including a T9 at the Travelers two weeks ago, where he fired a Friday 62. His stats have been improving, too, particularly the ball-striking stats, as he now ranks in the top-40 on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green and strokes gained on approach. He makes birdies in bunches, racking up over 300 of them this season (28th on Tour in total birdies), which is especially critical at a course like Deere Run– this week is all about playing offense and being aggressive. Smalley seemed to like it here last year, finishing 16th, and given his current form I’d be surprised if he doesn’t do a little better than this this week. Maybe a lot better…
Doug Ghim (78.0)- I’m riding with Mr. Ghim for the second consecutive week– the price may not be quite as sweet as it was last week due to strength of field, but this is still a big price for someone who has been playing as well as he has, with four finishes of 27th or better in his past five starts. He’s a combined 54-under par across his last 16 competitive rounds, and he’s played well at Deere Run before, finishing T18 here in 2021. With many of the big-name stars taking the week off, this is a perfect opportunity for someone like Ghim to change his career. A win this week would do just that, and he’s capable of pulling it off.