SILVIS – While the John Deere Classic may not pull in the superstars like Tiger or Phil – thanks for scheduling it the week before the British Open, PGA Tour! – there are still plenty of marquee names familiar to a majority of the golf fans walking around the TPC at Deere Run.
In fact, two of them – local favorite Zach Johnson and young European star Camilo Villegas – are tied for the first-round lead.
But it's the Joe Affruntis of the world who make tournaments like the JDC worth watching.
Affrunti is a Crystal Lake native and 2004 University of Illinois grad, and he's the type of guy who make up a majority of the professional golf scene: talented players who take on the weekly grind and try to make enough money to keep their tour card and spend the next summer taking on that same weekly grind.
But he's also a unique story. He's bounced back from not one but two injuries the past 5 years – he had wrist surgery 5 years ago and shoulder surgery 3 years ago – and is still in the hunt to earn a spot on a professional golf circuit next season.
Affrunti spends some of his time playing on the Web.com Tour, kind of the Triple-A ball of professional golf. Last tournament, he lost in a four-man playoff, but it's finishes like that which will keep paying him to follow his passion.
It's all about making cuts and finishing in money by playing the weekend, and finishes like that one help move Affrunti up the list. The top 25 money winners on the Web.com Tour automatically keep their tour cards, and a lot of the guys who finish from 25th through 50th also stick around.
There's also the chance for 31-year-old to win a PGA Tour event, automatically earning him a 2-year exemption for the big show.
"So there's really no added pressure, other than wanting to win a tournament," Affrunti said. "There's a couple of ways I can keep my card, and I'm confident that now that I'm healthy, I'll be just fine."
Right now, it's all about building confidence for Affrunti. After the playoff loss in his last tourney, he came out and started hot in Thursday's JDC first round. He birdied the first two holes, and had it to 3 under before bogeys on the par-3 12th and short par-4 14th.
"I was pretty steady, but made a couple of mistakes," Affrunti said. "I couldn't get up and down on the par 3, then I hit a wedge over the green on the short par 4. It was stupid; I knew that shot, and I shouldn't have gone long."
But he made two-putt pars on 15, 16 and 17, then played a perfect tee shot to the middle of the 18th fairway. He knocked his approach shot to within 10 feet, and knocked down the birdie putt to finish his opening round at 2-under 69.
"There was a nice, full grandstand out there on 18 – and I made birdie in front of them," Affrunti said. "We had a nice group following us today, and that's always fun when you've got people watching you and cheering you on.
"It's a way better taste in my mouth after that birdie on 18, and that really helps the feeling heading into [Friday] – and hopefully the weekend. I just have to shake off those mistakes, focus on the start and finish of my round, and get back to work."
That entailed hitting the practice range and putting green – "My putting didn't feel very good today," Affrunti said – and then refocusing on going low today to earn the chance to play the final two rounds.
Affrunti, who missed the JDC cut in 2010, is playing at Deere Run for the fourth time, and he knows what he needs to do to make it to Saturday and Sunday.
"I know this course, and it's all about making a bunch of birdies," he said. "There's no real number in your head going around here; you just have to make birdies, then follow those up with more birdies, and limit the mistakes. There are birdies out there, a lot of them, and I just didn't take advantage of them today."
There are plenty of guys out there feeling the same way as Affrunti, and that's what you like to see as a sports fan. It's the hungriest players who make for the best viewing, and when the birdies are flying left and right, it only adds to the spectacle.
In the PGA's own words, "These guys are good" – and they're more than ready to prove it.