(This is post #1,500 in the history of this blog.)
The John Deere Classic was played at a golf course outside of Moline, Illinois, over the weekend. Twenty-five years ago this month, I covered the event for the first time.
I was working at the elevator-music station in the Quad Cities market. We believed (although I never saw any research to back it up) that a decent-sized segment of our audience was squarely in the golf demographic—40s/50s, male, and wealthy enough to play the game seriously. We programmed a fair amount to this supposed audience (business travel weather forecasts every morning, stock market wrap-ups in the afternoon, ski-condition reports in the winter) and so it made sense to go all-in on the golf tournament. I was chosen to be the reporter because I was the only person on the air staff who knew or cared anything about sports. For three summers, I spent the better part of a week on the course, phoning back reports on the scores and, most important, getting in plugs for our sponsors.
At least two of the years I covered the tournament (known then as the Hardees Golf Classic), it was played the same weekend as the British Open, which meant that none of the big names in golf were there. The celebrity pro-am, the day before actual competition began, was usually the most star-studded part of the week. I nearly got knocked over by basketball legend Julius Erving as he hurried from a green to a tee, and I was nearly brained by a drive hit by football star Terry Bradshaw. Because I had a media credential, I occasionally met media stars who were a big deal to me. I visited with Chicago sportswriter/radio personality Bill Jauss for a few minutes one afternoon, and I introduced myself to Eddie Doucette, legendary play-by-play announcer for the Milwaukee Bucks during their 70s glory years, who anchored the TV coverage.
The British Open wasn’t the only thing that overshadowed the tournament in those years. In 1988, President Reagan returned to the Quad Cities to visit the radio station he had worked for as a young man and to dedicate its new building, and that pushed the golf tournament off the front page for a couple of days. (The day of Reagan’s visit was also the single hottest day I can ever remember experiencing, with temperatures well above 90 and humidity to match.) A year later, a spectacular plane crash in Sioux City, Iowa, killed 111 people while the tournament was going on. It was what everyone was talking about, even in the media tent.
I enjoyed watching the golf, having a VIP parking pass, hobnobbing with the other members of the working press (and eating the free food provided to us by Hardees), but honesty compels me to report that five days at the tournament was about two days too many. Sunday afternoon, as the leaders approached the 18th hole, I was usually so tired of being there that I actively prayed against anything that might cause a sudden-death playoff and keep me from getting the hell out of there.
For a couple of years after I quit working for the station, I went to the tournament as a fan. After it got better dates, I saw Greg Norman, Payne Stewart, Curtis Strange, and other big stars of 20 years ago play up close. One year, my pal Curt and I got on ESPN big as life, watching from behind a rope as one of the big names stood over a putt.
It remains my greatest moment in television.