Local hero in Deere Classic

BY ROBBIE LEHMAN | JULY 13, 2009 7:15 AM

SILVIS, Ill. — Fans were rooting hard for a local hero to be crowned the 2009 John Deere Classic champion at TPC Deere Run on Sunday. They got what they asked for; the problem was that two Midwest stars rose to the challenge.

Iowa native Zach Johnson came into the tournament as the player near and dear to the hearts of fans, but Wisconsin native and Illinois alum Steve Stricker stole some of those hearts halfway through Sunday’s 36-hole marathon of a final.

Johnson began the day tied with several others at 5 under, but he made a fierce charge on the final two rounds. He recorded nine birdies for a 7-under 64 during the morning, and seven birdies for a 66 in the afternoon. That put him at 267 (17 under) total after four rounds of play.

The Drake alum finished on hole No. 9 a little over an hour before Stricker marched up the 18th fairway. Ten minutes after that, he was having his photograph taken as he hoisted the championship trophy after shooting an incredible 264.

“I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and think about winning but just give myself the opportunity at the end,” he said. “It felt like this could be the day to do it.”

He almost didn’t come to the tournament in the first place — he hasn’t for several years — but tournament director Clair Peterson begged him to participate. After he won, Stricker said with a smile that he didn’t regret coming and shouted a “Thank-you” to Peterson.

“This is a great event,” Stricker said. “They just make you feel so welcome here and do such a first-class job here. The course is very fun to play.”

But his joy was Johnson’s pain.

“You know, too many pars and probably too many bogeys,” Johnson said. “Especially considering this is kind of my fifth major … I’ve just never played well here.”

Stricker displayed a killer instinct in guarding his lead all day with Johnson and others throwing darts at him. He kept the pressure on, and the 33-year-old Johnson said he caught himself looking at the leaderboard “on a couple of occasions.”

“I felt like I had to,” he said. “It’s one of those situations where playing, you’re in the lead and in one of the last few groups, you have a feel as to what’s going on.

“But if you’re nine holes ahead of the final groups, you have to kind of see what’s going on. I mean, there’s a time to be aggressive and a time to be conservative. I think you would be foolish to not pay attention.”

Stricker worked hard to hold his position and said he felt OK in the top spot.

“I was very relaxed today and maybe because it was such a long day,” he said. “It was 36 holes, and you’re tired out there. You’re fighting fatigue most of the second round, you’re just trying to stay in it mentally. I felt very comfortable being in this position.”

He worked hard to hold his position, and after holding off all of his contenders, Stricker felt one thing when his ball fell into the 18th cup — relief.

“A lot of relief,” Stricker said. “Especially after 36 holes today. Just the satisfaction of knowing that all the time you put in and all the work that you’ve done has paid off. There’s a lot of the good things that come along with winning. For me personally, it’s about the work that I put in and it paying off when you do win.

“It’s always little things, and the little things make a big difference in this game.”

They may have had to warm up to him, but Stricker proved worthy in the end and the fans had the hometown hero they were hoping for.

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