News & Opinion

Loan titan locks in Detroit’s new Tour home

DETROIT – For a city that successfully staged Formula One races on its downtown streets, pulled off a superb Super Bowl extravaganza in the dead of winter, and is the only place in the country with four major-league teams – the Lions, Red Wings, Tigers and Pistons – playing almost across the street from one another, hosting the first-ever PGA Tour event in Detroit should be a slam dunk.

Especially when the man behind the deal is hometown boy Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of Quicken Loans, whose personal crusade is revitalizing the city of Detroit. Gilbert has spent $5.6 billion – and counting – to buy up more than 90 commercial properties downtown, and he also owns one of the city’s three casino-hotel complexes.

With 17,000 of his employees filling a lot of those newly renovated office buildings downtown, Gilbert is a major player in a remarkable turnaround of a city that emerged from a historic bankruptcy less than four years ago. The real estate arm of Gilbert’s empire recently began construction on a $1 billion, 58-story skyscraper that will top out at 800 feet and will be the tallest structure in Michigan. Gilbert is spending millions more on four other projects, including renovating an iconic 38-story tower, and building a 35-story retail, commercial and residential facility on a historic block downtown. 

When he and his companies aren’t promoting a vibrant street scene downtown, Gilbert finds time to look in on his other assets across Lake Erie: the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the team’s Quicken Loans Arena.

“We’re heavily invested in Detroit, and this fits our broader mission,” Jay Farner, the chief executive of Quicken Loans, told The Detroit News. “We try to do stuff that’s never been done before, and do it big. We’re planning to make this really a Detroit event, celebrating all that’s going on here, and having golf be the center or focal point.”  

On Wednesday, the PGA Tour announced a Detroit stop to be title sponsored by Quicken Loans beginning in 2019, replacing the Quicken Loans National, which is hosted by Tiger Woods in Potomac, Md. No date was set on the Tour’s 2019 calendar, which is undergoing significant changes to move the PGA Championship from August to May and to finish the FedEx Cup playoffs ahead of the football season.

With a little imagination, the Detroit tournament will be shoehorned into the 119-year-old Detroit Golf Club, a private facility that sports two 18-hole Donald Ross-designed loops, simply named the North and the South courses. The tournament would be played on the North Course, which measures a bit more than 7,000 yards. The Tour’s news release said only that DGC is expected to serve as the host venue.

Tour and club officials are mulling tweaks that could add another 200 yards to the course. According to club insiders, one involves moving the tee on the 500-yard, par-5 14thhole back 100 yards, onto the South Course’s 13th hole. Tour players would have to navigate a 600-yard hole with a formidable carry over a pond to the green.

The club sits amid several of the city’s upper-crust residential neighborhoods, including the stately old mansions of Palmer Woods, English Tudors in the University District and classic homes lining Fairway Drive on the west side of the club. Across the street (or the tracks) is the old Rogell nine-hole muni that has seen better days.

One plan under consideration is to set up a practice facility at Rogell. Also nearby, the expansive former Michigan State Fairgrounds could be used for spectator parking, with shuttles to the club.

Detroit Golf Club owns a rich golf history. The Albert Kahn-designed clubhouse opened 100 years ago. Horton Smith, a former DGC head professional, won a 1934 inaugural golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club that was the forerunner of the Masters.

Nearby Oakland Hills Country Club has hosted nine major championships – six U.S. Opens and three PGAs – and a rousing 2004 Ryder Cup. The PGA Tour played the Buick Open from 1958 to 2009 at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club before tournament sponsorship fell victim to the auto industry’s problems.

Mike Bylen, the long-time managing partner of three of the area’s top public clubs – Shepherd’s Hollow, Pine Trace and Cherry Creek – said Metro Detroit always has been a hot spot for golf.

“When the Buick Open was played at Grand Blanc [45 minutes north of Detroit], most of the fans came from our area, and whenever we had a major event at Oakland Hills – whether it was the [U.S.] Amateur, the PGA Championship or the U.S. Open – they did very, very, well,” Bylen told Morning Read. “Detroit has always supported sporting events, sports teams, concerts and entertainment.

“Perception is reality, and for many, many, years the perception of Detroit was a broken city, crime, and a decaying relic,” Bylen said. “It was never a decaying relic, nor was it quite as bad as it was made out to be. If we have a successful tournament at a great Donald Ross golf club, the television exposure for all the recent achievements in the city will be invaluable. It will move the needle towards [viewers] saying it is an interesting city. It will be worth the time to visit.”       

Norm Sinclair is a former investigative reporter for The Detroit News who keeps tabs on Michigan golf and tourism. Email: n-sinclair@att.net