News & Opinion

USGA’s nod to Detroit jump-starts thoughts of Tour’s return

The announcement Wednesday of a significant golf tournament coming to metropolitan Detroit conjures images of the terribly missed Buick Open or the Ford Senior Players Championship or the Motor City Open of long ago.

That’s what is happening again with news from the U.S. Golf Association that the 2020 U.S. Senior Amateur will be held at the Country Club of Detroit on Aug. 29-Sept. 3.

But this time there is another component that makes this a momentous development. The Country Club of Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Farms, is where the late Arnold Palmer made his breakthrough by winning the 1954 U.S. Amateur on the course designed by the British duo of Harry Colt and Charles Hugh Alison.

A 24-year-old Palmer defeated Robert Sweeny Jr., 1 up, in the championship match. Palmer always said that victory was the turning point in his career.

The Detroit area, a hotbed of golf, hasn’t had a PGA Tour event since the Buick Open ended in 2009. Tiger Woods, who had been a Buick spokesman, won the final event at Warwick Hills Country Club.

In 1958, Buick became the trailblazer for what would become the oldest, longest-running corporate sponsorship in PGA Tour history. The automaker’s wisdom in using golf as a vehicle to reach its customers has been confirmed by sponsors that have followed. Since the demise of the Buick Open, the possibility of a return of a Tour event has been discussed at every turn by the local golf community.

With the U.S. Senior Amateur announcement, the speculation begins anew.

“When you talk to people about golf in the area, the common thread is their memories of the Buick Open and Warwick Hills,” said PGA master professional Jim Dewling, a two-time president of the Michigan Section PGA. “You hear people say all the time, ‘It’s a shame that it disappeared.’ It was something golfers in this area looked forward to every August.

“I think it’s absolutely special from the standpoint of the Detroit market as well as the Arnold Palmer connection. A great tribute and a great connection. It’s a bit of a shame it didn’t happen a little earlier. It helps all of us in talking about tournament golf in this area.”

Oakland Hills Country Club, host to six U.S. Opens, including Ben Hogan’s victory in 1951, was the site of last summer’s U.S. Amateur. 

It is common practice for the USGA to award a U.S. Open to a course that recently has hosted the U.S. Amateur, but so far there’s nothing new on that front. Oakland Hills is a familiar and popular venue for the USGA and more fertile than ever given the area’s thirst for professional golf.

Last summer’s U.S. Amateur demonstrated once again the support that tournament golf – at any level – gets from the Detroit community. The organization and implementation of the championship by the folks at Oakland Hills received rave reviews from the USGA. The consensus is that competition drew record crowds (although those figures aren’t officially announced) and unmatched media support and coverage.

The downturn in the economy early in 2000, notably the declining fortunes of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, brought to a stunning halt the car companies’ involvement in golf sponsorship.

The Buick Open was the centerpiece of the company’s involvement in golf from 1958 to 2009. The Senior Players Championship (1990-2006) was played on a Jack Nicklaus-designed course in the shadow of Ford’s corporate headquarters in Dearborn, about a well-struck 8-iron from its rooftop to the middle of the 17th fairway. 

It’s under-appreciated fact that Michigan has the most public courses among any state in the nation. A 2012 article in Forbes listed 850, but today’s number likely is not quite that high.

Little matter. Michigan is still No. 1 in public courses. In many of the recent listings, the state is ranked behind only Florida and California in the total number of courses, with about 1,000.

Those numbers clearly reflect Michigan’s affection for the game and the reasons why its residents would covet the return of professional golf to the Detroit area.

The 2020 U.S. Senior Amateur will be the 33rd USGA championship hosted in Michigan, not an insignificant number for a state in the country’s Snow Belt. And it already has the area buzzing about the possibilities.

Vartan Kupelian covered his first U.S. Open in 1973 at Oakmont Country Club. A past president of the Golf Writers Association of America, he was a sports writer and columnist at The Detroit News for 38 years. He has covered more than 100 major championships across all tours. Email: golfstix@aol.com