News & Opinion

Motor City shifts into gear for PGA Tour

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The Motor City has embraced the PGA Tour’s inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic this week, but Detroit’s municipal-golf scene would benefit from a similar jolt of enthusiasm.

It is entirely fitting that a perfect storm has returned the PGA Tour to Detroit for this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club

It is entirely fitting that a perfect storm has returned the PGA Tour to Detroit for this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club. That’s because an imperfect storm brought an end to southeastern Michigan’s longstanding Buick Open after the 2009 tournament at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc.

In 2009, the local economy was tanking and the Big Three automakers – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – were feeling the pinch as never before. The Buick Open, a staple in these parts for 51 years, was a victim of the fallout.

The tournament began in 1958 as the Buick Invitational, the first time any automaker in the world had opted to sponsor professional golf, a fact that Buick promoted for many years. The wisdom of that decision has been validated many times over with so many automakers worldwide attaching their brand to golf tournaments.

There were great years at the Buick Open, and it all came to a head when Buick signed Tiger Woods to a sponsorship deal in 1999, three years after he turned professional. That was the beginning of a whole new ballgame for Buick and corporate parent General Motors. The glory days lasted for a decade, until the declining economy and Buick’s woes pulled the plug.

Everybody knew professional golf belonged in Detroit and that it would return someday. But the notion needed to marinate for a while until the economy made a comeback and somebody in the corporate world stepped up to replace Buick.

The second part of that was to find a golf course willing and able to host a PGA Tour event. Until this week, there never has been a PGA Tour event within the Detroit city limits. The centerpiece for big-time golf in southeastern Michigan always has been Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township. Oakland Hills has been host to six U.S. Opens (think Ben Hogan, 1951), three PGA Championships, the 2004 Ryder Cup and two U.S. Senior Opens (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus).

It’s hard to measure up to Oakland Hills as a venue, and that’s been a deterrent for Detroit. The area’s great classic courses have been considered too short for Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and the other bombers of the modern era. They were short on infrastructure – classic courses aren’t big on practice facilities, traffic flow or parking. That’s just the way it is.

So it required one of the classic designs to step up and decide that it can do this. It took a membership onboard with the task, and it took a Detroit-based business owner with a sense of community, Dan Gilbert and his Rocket Mortgage, to finally say, Let’s get this done.

And they have.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic was no afterthought. It could not be, given the challenges. Its roots were planted even before the Buick Open departed in 2009. It was seven years before DGC unveiled a master plan, which included securing a PGA Tour event. The work was done quietly in stages, with construction phases in 2006, 2010, 2012 and 2014. Architect Bruce Hepner was commissioned to restore the club’s two Donald Ross-designed courses, North and South, to their original greatness after the years had altered their character.

By 2014, very little needed to be done to bring the North Course, site of this week’s tournament, to the standards that would lure the PGA Tour and challenge the game’s top players. This event should help restore the bygone luster of one of America’s great facilities, which includes an historic Albert Khan-designed clubhouse from 1918. They don’t build ’em like this anymore.

Only one hole on the North Course will be borrowed from the South, to stretch the length to 7,303 yards (par 72) and make it technically a composite course. The routing of the North Course has been altered to accommodate the addition of the first hole on the South: a 410-yard par 4, which becomes the third hole in the routing and links up nicely with the fourth hole. No. 4 is the most dramatic change. A short par 5 on the North Course has been stretched to 625 yards. The first hole on the North Course, a 305-yard par 4, won't be used.

Whenever the subject came up as to viable alternatives for a PGA Tour event, Detroit Golf Club – not to be confused with Country Club of Detroit – always was at the forefront. That demonstrated a desire to do something special for the city and the club, which is a treasure-trove of golf history. Horton Smith, the big redhead who won two of the first three Masters Invitational titles, in 1934 and 1936, went from Augusta National Golf Club to DGC as golf professional. Later, George Bayer, renowned as the longest hitter of his day and a PGA Tour winner, was the club professional. All of golf’s greats played at DGC at one point or another.

Tournament organizers are reporting daily that another round has been sold out, with a target of about 100,000 spectators for the four tournament rounds. That’s without Tiger Woods in the field. It’s not a surprise. It simply proves that southeastern Michigan actually missed professional golf as much as it claimed over the past decade.

That’s not a surprise, either. Michigan is the most underrated golf state in America. It has more public courses – still above 500 despite the recent spate of a closures – than any state in the union. That’s blue-collar golf, like the town.

The buzz for the Rocket Mortgage Classic has been palpable. There’s another reason for that: the abysmal spring weather in Michigan has denied golfers many opportunities to play. They’re itching to get out and watch Gary Woodland, Rickie Fowler and the others compete. It’s the right time for the PGA Tour to return to Detroit and the perfect time for the city to embrace the game with renewed vigor.

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