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Deere mpany : Small-town tourney suits them just fine

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07/14/2017 | 08:34 pm

July 14--SILVIS -- Once I knew I was going to cover the 2017 John Deere Classic, I thought of a great story idea: How cool would it be to find a few guys who grew up in smaller towns and asked them how they liked TPC Deere Run and Silvis, one of the smaller, more obscure tournaments on the PGA Tour.

As a young journalist, lessons are learned with every story. What I learned Thursday is -- like all good golfers -- the art of the scramble.

In my research, I narrowed my interview targets to four players: Bubba Watson, Boo Weekley, Troy Merritt and D.A. Points. Only Merritt was cooperative among the four, so I took what I could get.

The 31-year-old Merritt was born in Osage, Iowa, a town of 3,619 people as of the 2010 census. He only spent the first 8 months of his life there, but has other local ties. His parents are originally from Dubuque, Iowa, and his grandfather worked for John Deere. It's a chance for his wife and two sons to come out to see him play as well, and a cherished event since none of his family travels around the country to watch him compete.

"My family comes out in full force for this event, and they have a great time," Merritt said. "It's really the only chance I get to see most of them all year. It's a big one for me to make every year."

In his sixth year as a regular on the PGA Tour, Merritt has always made it a point to circle the John Deere Classic on his calendar. His top finish is a tie for 20th in 2014, when he finished at 12 under. Twelve of his 16 rounds at TPC Deere Run have been under par, and all four of his rounds in the 2011 and 2014 tournaments were under par.

"It's a very fun golf course," Merritt said. "Every week is different, from the tournaments everybody knows about to the smaller ones. The course is in great shape; it always is. It's a tournament I'll never miss for as long as I'm playing."

After Thursday's round, Merritt sits at 2 under with a solid first round of 69. He was 1-over after the first nine, but finished with three birdies on the back.

Watson, a native of Bagdad, Florida (population 1,490) either chose not to listen to me, or somehow didn't hear me saying "Bubba, can I get a minute for a quick interview?" from just several feet away.

I caught Weekley (a native of Milton, Florida, population 7,045) walking to his ride out of the grounds, and all I got from him was a "Sorry, kid."

Points, an Illinois boy from Pekin, wasn't playing very well, so I figured he wouldn't want to stick around for me.

With that, I searched the grounds as the sun started to set for just one more player from a small area who could relate to the Tour's stop in Silvis. I came upon a large group of people wearing white hats that read "D Law" on the eighth hole, and overheard a spectator say that the crowd was supporting a player from Moline.

That player was David Lawrence, a Moline native who has been pursuing a golf career since his graduation from Eastern Illinois University 5 years ago. He has professional status on the Challenge Tour in Europe, and has bounced around on mini tours in Florida and the Dakotas.

On Monday, Lawrence received the call of a lifetime. He was being awarded a sponsor's exemption to play in his hometown tournament, on his home course.

He rushed down from Michigan, where he was doing equipment testing, to prepare. Unlike any young golfer looking for his big break, though, Lawrence didn't have to worry about rushing to know the course.

"Those smaller tours are kind of the minor leagues, so this is like getting the call-up to the majors," Lawrence said. "I feel comfortable here because I've spent so many long weeks here. I know what to expect."

Stepping up to the No. 10 tee for his first shot, Lawrence resorted to cracking a joke to ease some of the pressure he felt.

"I just wanted to get it airborne," Lawrence said. "I joked with my caddie and said, 'All right, let's just make contact here.'"

The 27-year-old ended up bogeying the par-5 10th, but settled into a good rhythm on the holes afterward. He even got into red numbers with consecutive birdies on 16 and 17, but bogeyed 18 to finish his front nine at even-par.

His second nine featured two bogeys, two birdies and a double bogey. At 2-over and 10 shots behind leaders Charles Howell III and Ollie Schniederjans, Lawrence has some work to do today. However, he'll have more than enough support from all those white hats that read "D Law".

"It's very humbling to know there's so much support behind me," Lawrence said. "Getting the same excitement from the crowd as some of the big names is awesome. It makes me realize that this is what I want to do week in and week out."

At the end of my interviews with Merritt and Lawrence, they both asked me, "See you tomorrow?"

I told them no, but their exact same responses made me smile much larger than my frowns at Watson and Weekley.

"Darn. Well, it was nice to meet you. Drive back safe," they said.

___

(c)2017 the Daily Gazette (Sterling, Ill.)

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