At the John Deere Classic, a first-year superintendent sets the stage

A former assistant returns to roots at TPC Deere Run for his first big event as the man in charge. 


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
TPC Deere Run superintendent Jonathan Graham, center, flanked by first assistant Andrew Cooper, left, a four-year GCSAA member, and second assistant Jarrett Chapman, a six-year association member. Photos by Andrew Hartsock

Jonathan Graham has just one concern heading into the weekend of the first PGA Tour event under his watch as head superintendent at TPC Deere Run, and it has nothing to do with the stage on which the pros will vie under the unrelenting gaze of a national TV audience for a share of the $7.4 million purse.

“The biggest thing that keeps me up at night,” says Graham, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 10-year association member, “is the concert Saturday night on the 18th hole.”

Concerts on the Course will be held the final two nights of the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill. After Saturday’s golf, Darius Rucker will take the stage adjacent to the VIP seating running alongside the 18th hole’s signature pond; Blake Shelton is scheduled for Sunday.

Graham isn’t too terribly concerned about the Shelton show. After all, any damage done by a rowdy crowd could be repaired before it draws too much attention. But if the folks who turn out for the artist formerly known as Hootie get too terribly turnt, Graham would prefer the concerted carnage on the final hole of the final round not be broadcast live.

That’s not something Graham’s mentor, Alex Stuedemann, CGCS, ever had to deal with during his 15-year, two-stint run as superintendent at Deere Run. A 25-year association member, Stuedemann was promoted to director of agronomy for the PGA Tour’s TPC Network of facilities.

Stuedemann still lives in the Quad Cities, has been on-site for two weeks in Silvis as part of his new role and has been on speed dial for Graham — his former assistant — since his promotion last September. But not once during Stuedemann’s tenure did he host a pair of concerts on-course for the final two nights.

“It’s the first time,” Graham says. “There’s no notes, no prior history. There’s no one to ask questions.”

Graham worries about the concert stage’s proximity to the 18th green, but he’s encouraged by the performers’ genre.

“I think golf fans will respect the ropes,” he says of the largely ephemeral barriers that will keep concertgoers off the delicate turf. “Most concerts usually have big barrier fences. I’m glad it’s not a rock band, and it’s a couple of country singers.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Spectators gather for the John Deere Classic at the 18th hole at TPC Deere Run.

Graham interned in 2013 and served as an assistant at Deere Run from 2014 until his departure to become assistant at TPC San Antonio in 2018. He couldn’t recall a time during his previous work for Deere Classics that a day’s grounds-pass tickets sold out ahead of time, but that was the case in advance of the Rucker show Saturday, compounding Graham’s concern.

“But I know we have to be a golf course that has to bring in revenue,” he says. “It will be exciting to have a lot of people on the golf course.”<

The transition from Stuedemann to Graham, both men agreed, was seamless.

“I came in with the understanding that for my first year, I wouldn’t change too much,” Graham says. “Alex left a good property with a good plan in place. I didn’t want to change that.”

Aside from shaping up some drainage areas, he said, and some tree trimming, there were no “huge, major changes,” Graham says.

Down the line, aside from cleaning up some of the views to the adjacent Rock River and maybe tidying up some rough areas — “If you’re worried about your roughs being your worst problem, you much be doing pretty good in your tees, greens and fairways,” he admits — the biggest changes around the place might be inside the maintenance facility.

“Maybe I’ll change some of the pictures that are hanging here in the office,” Graham says with a laugh. “Some of them have been here since I was an assistant.”

Dry conditions did have him a bit worried in the run-up to the Deere Classic.

“We always have issues, with the weather in particular,” Graham said. “We had some rain on May 14, then it was dry until the 25th of June. Things were drying out faster than we could keep them hydrated. We don’t have full coverage over the full course, so we were starting to show some signs of drought stress. We were playing fast and firm, then we got 2.3 inches in a week. Then (on July 5, the eve of the tournament) we dodged some more rain. Some areas within 10 miles of us got 5 inches of rain.”

Buoyed by the addition of 26 full-week volunteers and another 12-15 occasional workers that doubled his regular staff, Graham felt characteristically calm heading into tournament play.

“Tournament week is just a repeat of what we’ve been doing,” he says. “To have all those volunteers helps make this week a little more calm. I’ve even been able to enjoy it a little. I got to the 18th and watched them change out the cup and looked at it and thought, ‘This is awesome.’ You have to take it in a little bit. All this hard work you do to have people see what you do on TV … that’s why we do this.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.