Just shy of 150 years earlier, a Vermont-born blacksmith with a promising invention called the steel plow set up shop on the banks of the Mississippi in what would soon become Moline, Illinois.
John Deere’s steel plow was fundamental to the Quad Cities becoming the Farm Machinery Capital of the World.
By 1979, when Illinois’ D.A. Weibring won the last of the Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open, more than 52,000 Quad Citians were working around the clock in dozens of factories to produce farm equipment bearing the names of Case, Farmall, International Harvester and, of course, John Deere.
With its corporate headquarters based in nearby Moline, Deere was a title sponsor target from the moment the Quad Cities tournament teed off. And, to many, that seemed a natural fit. Two of the founder’s early descendants, after all, had a grand history in the game. Grandson John Deere Cady played on the silver-medalist U.S. men’s golf team at the 1904 Summer Olympics. And a cabin at Augusta National still bears the name of Deere’s great-nephew Burton Peek.
Still, Deere & Company did not grow into the Fortune 150 company it is today by investing in family pastimes. William Hewitt, the last in a line of Deere chairmen with a family tie to the founder, declined those 1970s asks for significant sponsorship dollars.
When the farm economy downturned on a dime in the midst of an epic recession in the 1980s, Case and IH turned out the lights on their Quad Cities-based factories, left town and took thousands of jobs with them. Deere remained but was far from immune to the economic realities of the recession. It was in no position through the 1980s to help a gritty little golf tournament fight for its life.
John Deere’s company turned its fate around, thanks to longstanding strategic commitments to global expansion and product diversification. That the latter included a golf and turf equipment product line started in 1985 is the lynchpin reason the Deere turns 50 this year.
Butler, the TOUR executive, helped put the over-achieving tournament over the top. The tournament was on its last legs in May 1996, when Butler and tournament officials traveled to Deere & Company headquarters for one last ask of the flagging event’s last best hope.
The Deere team was cordial but skeptical until Butler, son of a Texas cattle rancher loyal to Deere equipment, put an intriguing proposal on the table: Were Deere & Company to take on title sponsorship of the tournament, the TOUR would build a TPC course to host and John Deere would become the official golf course equipment supplier across the expanding TPC network.
Skepticism quickly waned at One John Deere Place, and negotiations were proceeding apace long before Fiori caught a Tiger by the tail in September.
In April of 1997 – the same month that the kid who lost to Fiori won the Masters by 12 — the deal was sealed and announced.
As its golden anniversary nears, the John Deere Classic boasts the third longest title sponsor relationship on TOUR. In 2018 and 2019, the John Deere Classic and Deere won the TOUR’s year-end award for Best Title Sponsor Integration. The miniature tractors that serve as tee markers and the popular Big Dig, where players and their families get to test drive Deere products, are just two examples of the cohesive relationship between the tournament and sponsor.
The payback for those unrelenting volunteers who fought long and hard to keep the Classic on the calendar, meanwhile, has been immense. Since its introduction in 1992, the JDC’s high-flying, highly creative Birdies for Charity program has generated $133 million for well over 600 charitable organizations in the region. Thanks to the generous donations neighbors and local businesses annually make to soliciting charities, bolstered by a Deere- and tournament-funded bonus pool, the JDC has proudly owned the title of per capita leader in charitable giving on TOUR for a decade-plus.
In seven of the past 11 years, the JDC earned the TOUR’s Most Engaged Community Award, and the 2019 event was backed by 2,200 volunteers, more than double largest volunteer force to turn out at Oakwood.
Patrons continue to embrace the event for the one-week-per-year taste of the big leagues it presents.
The tournament’s long-embraced niche as a launching pad for TOUR stars has produced 23 first-time winners, among them Payne Stewart (1982), Scott Hoch (1980), David Toms (1997), and, most recently, Jordan Spieth (2013) and Bryson DeChambeau (2017).