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Tractor Pull To save the endangered Quad Cities tournament, D.A. Weibring helped seed a deal among the area's first family, its biggest employer and the Tour

Aug. 06, 2001
Aug. 06, 2001

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Aug. 6, 2001

Tractor Pull To save the endangered Quad Cities tournament, D.A. Weibring helped seed a deal among the area's first family, its biggest employer and the Tour

You might not have recognized last week's Tour stop, but that was
the Quad Cities Open that David Gossett won on Sunday. You
remember the Quad Cities. It's the tournament that we made fun of
because it had Ed McMahon's name on it for a while, and was
played somewhere that made a pretty good trivia question (answer:
Moline and Rock Island, Ill., and Bettendorf and Davenport,
Iowa), and had more bad dates than Bridget Jones, always sharing
a week with the British Open or the Ryder Cup. Things have
changed. The Quad Cities is called the John Deere Classic now,
and it's played on a luscious new course, the TPC at Deere Run in
Silvis, Ill., right next to Moline. There's network TV and a $2.8
million purse, and the tournament has a week of its own, just
like the big boys.

This is an article from the Aug. 6, 2001 issue

Five years ago the Tour threatened to abandon the Quad Cities.
That the tournament is thriving today is a tribute to one golfer,
D.A. Weibring, and three great-great-great-grandchildren of John
Deere himself. How Weibring and the heirs joined forces to save
the tournament is a story about the local-boy-made-good who
wanted to help out at home and the noblesse oblige of the area's
wealthiest family.

In 25 seasons Weibring, 48, has won five tournaments and more
than $4.6 million, or about what Tiger Woods has won (four and
$4.5 million, respectively) since January. Cynics say that makes
Weibring exactly the sort of pro you would expect to be best
known for his association with a tournament like the Quad Cities.
Weibring, though, is not a cynical person, and he is proud to say
that he has three victories at the Quad Cities. He won it in
1979, when it was called the Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open;
in '91, when it was the Hardee's Golf Classic; and again in '95,
when it was the Quad City Classic.

Although no one has matched his record, that alone is not the
reason he became the tournament's patron saint. "People around
here don't look at D.A. as a star," says Quad City Times reporter
Craig DeVrieze, who has covered the tournament for 17 years.
"They think of him as one of us."

Weibring has lived in Plano, Texas, for most of his adult life,
but he grew up in Quincy, Ill., 180 miles down the Mississippi
River from the Quad Cities, and in many ways remains a downstate,
small-town kind of guy. He loves basketball, is chatty and never
treats anyone as a stranger. "Except for Chicago," Weibring says,
"Illinois is a state of small towns. The Quad Cities [tournament]
always felt like home."

His roots in the event go deeper than the three wins. In 1974,
when he was a junior on the team at Illinois State, he was
invited to play in the Wednesday pro-am at Quad Cities. Weibring
drove up on Tuesday and spent the night in his car in the parking
lot at Bettendorf's Crow Valley Country Club, the tournament's
home for its first three years. Weibring turned pro in 1975, and
the first cut he made in a Tour event was at the Quad Cities in
'77, when the tournament was at Oakwood Country Club in Coal
Valley, Ill., where it had a 25-year run. Before his breakthrough
win in '79, Weibring also had his first brush with success at the
Quad Cities, in '78, when he tied for third. "Some guys don't
play well in front of friends and family," Weibring says. "But it
motivates me."

Weibring relishes the '79 victory not only because it was his
first but also because his father, who was ill with lung cancer,
saw every shot. Don Weibring ran a dry-cleaning business in
Quincy and so loved golf that he helped raise money to build the
town's public 18-hole course, Westview. "My dad taught me how to
play," Weibring says. "He felt uncomfortable going to the big
city, so the Quad Cities was his major. That made it important to
me. He was a very good player and used to teach a little bit at
Westview. He shot 66 consecutive rounds of par or better. After
he died, in 1984, I didn't go back to the tournament for four
years. It would have been very difficult for my mom."

In 1991 Weibring won the Quad Cities by fighting off Paul
Azinger, Peter Jacobsen and Greg Norman on the final nine holes.
In '95, when he became one of only eight active players on Tour
to win the same event three times, Weibring was already heavily
involved in the course-design business. At the time the victory
seemed fitting because the future of the tournament was in doubt.

For many years the Quad Cities remained on the schedule only
because it had a powerful benefactor at Tour headquarters. Deane
Beman, the PGA Tour commissioner at the time, had a soft spot for
the tournament because two of his four victories had come at the
Quad Cities. In 1975 Beman allowed the tournament to put up a
purse of only $75,000, which was $50,000 below the minimum. Ten
years later he had the Tour make up a $16,000 shortfall in a
$300,000 purse.

When Beman retired in 1994, though, the Tour took on a less
generous attitude. "The Quad Cities had to step up or step off,"
says Duke Butler, the Tour's vice president of tournament
business affairs. That's when the John Deere Co. intervened.

Given the size of the company--it is by far the area's largest
employer, with a workforce of 8,000--and its longstanding
relationship with the community, it's a surprise that the
manufacturer of farm equipment didn't dive in sooner. The names
of Deere and his descendants are everywhere in Moline: the John
Deere Middle School; the Deere-Wiman House community center and
the Butterworth Center, which were the homes of family members;
and the Tish Hewitt House, a long-term nursing facility named for
Patricia Wiman Hewitt, the great-great-granddaughter of Deere and
the wife of William Hewitt, CEO of the company from 1955 to '82.
Bill Hewitt not only brought Deere to the world, building it into
the corporate behemoth it is today, but also brought the world to
Deere. In 1963 Hewitt hired Eero Saarinen, the Finnish architect
best known for the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Dulles
International Airport outside Washington, D.C., to design the
company's Moline headquarters, in which he displayed his
world-class art collection.

In Tish, Hewitt found a woman of equal energy and vision. Tish
Hewitt was born in Chicago but was a progressive force in the
Quad Cities community. She marched with the area's
African-American leaders after the assassination of Martin Luther
King Jr. in 1968 and opened her home for meetings of civil rights
leaders. Tish Hewitt couldn't have hidden if she had wanted to.
"She was tall, over six feet," says Bazy Tankersley, a lifelong
friend. "She had flaming red hair and black eyebrows and she
dressed with flair. Tish and I grew up in farm culture--what you
see is what you get."

Tish had loved horses since she was a child, and in the early
'50s she converted a 375-acre family farm on a bluff overlooking
the Rock River into Friendship Farms, which she used to breed
Arabian horses. "The farm was very important in our lives," says
Anna Hewitt Wolfe, 46, one of Bill and Tish's three children.
"The farm was where we spent all our leisure time. My mother
didn't push riding. We would have to want to go, and we did. We
would trail ride. It is a beautiful spot--the ravines, the woods,
the pastures." Today Wolfe raises Arabians with her husband,
Joseph, and their three children at Mandala Center, a 10,000-acre
cattle ranch and spiritual retreat founded by her mother in Des
Moines, N.Mex.

In 1992, five days after receiving the Rodania Award, the highest
honor given by the Arabian Horse Owners Foundation, Tish Hewitt
died of a heart attack. She left Friendship Farms to the Rock
River Trust, overseen by Wolfe; her identical twin, Adrienne
Hewitt, who lives in Middleburg, Va.; and their brother,
Alexander Hewitt, 44, of Denver. None of the children was in a
position to take over Friendship Farms, so after spending three
years selling stock to other breeders, the three siblings
entertained offers for the land from developers. Before long,
though, they realized that they didn't want to see the property
turned into a subdivision. "One day my sister and I went up to
the overlook, where one can see the river from the woods," says
Wolfe. "The Native Americans had appreciated the beauty of that
spot long before we came along. Hopefully, the beauty will remain
long after we're gone. We thought, What do we do? I was
passionate about preserving the land. We are so temporary."

The family did not know that the Quad Cities tournament was near
extinction--the Hewitts weren't golfers ("My father used to joke
that when he met my mother, she told him she had better not
become a golf widow," says Wolfe)--and the Deere Co. did not know
the Hewitts were shopping the farm. Weibring knew. In July 1996 a
developer had approached Weibring and his partner in Golf
Resources Group, Sam Swanson, about the possibility of building a
course on Friendship Farms, and they had toured the property. The
deal had fallen through, but the designers couldn't forget the
land.

Two months later, during the Quad Cities tournament, Butler,
Deere executive Bob Combs and tournament officials met with
Swanson and Weibring, who filled them in about Friendship Farms
and the Hewitts. When representatives of the tournament and the
Deere Co. approached the Hewitt children about building a course
on the land, the heirs warmed to the idea. "We were excited about
all the people who would be outside and enjoying the property
without its being developed," says Wolfe.

The trust deeded the land to the John Deere Co., and in April
1997 the deal between the company and the Tour became official.
In addition to sponsoring the Quad Cities tournament for nine
years, through 2006, Deere would supply the Tour's 24 TPC courses
with maintenance equipment. In exchange the Tour would build a
TPC course, designed by Swanson and Weibring, on what was
Friendship Farms.

In an era when golf courses are built primarily to enhance
real-estate sales, the TPC at Deere Run is an anomaly. No housing
tracts surround the 7,183-yard, par-71 course, and the land, with
its stunning vistas and beautiful hardwoods, is the antithesis of
the type usually used for a new course. The site was so pristine
that Weibring's peers joked that there was no way that he could
mess up this one. "All we did was pull back the blanket, clean up
a little bit, mow the greens and say, 'Let's go play,'" he says.

Typical of the course is the 454-yard 4th hole, a dogleg right
built on high ground near the old horse barns (now maintenance
buildings). The hole has a lone oak smack in the middle of the
fairway. The safe play is to the wide side left of the tree.
Going to the right is a shortcut to the green, but a ravine hugs
the edge of the fairway. "The hole makes you make decisions,"
Weibring says. He named the oak the Hewitt Tree.

More than 140,000 fans came out to see Gossett win last week,
which is remarkable considering that the population of the Quad
Cities area is only 360,000. The Tour was thrilled. The community
was gratified. Wolfe was pleased, too, although her appreciation
had its limits. "The course is beautiful," she says, "but
personally, I'd rather ride a horse across it."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN For Weibring, a three-time winner at Quad Cities, the event is truly near and Deere. COLOR PHOTO: CHIP SIMONS Roots In New Mexico, Wolfe (right) carries on a family tradition, while at the TPC at Deere Run the Hewitt Tree honors the heirs' decision.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN [See caption above]
"Hopefully the beauty will remain long after we're gone," says
Wolfe of the land she and her siblings donated for the course.