News & Opinion

Motor City munis could use jump start, too

DETROIT – Thirty-seven years ago, I was in the grandstand behind the 18th green at Westchester Country Club in Harrison, N.Y., when Bob Gilder holed out for a deuce at the par 5 en route to victory. My dad knew a banker at Manufacturers Hanover Bank, the tournament sponsor, and took me to my first tournament. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I asked my dad if we could go play the next day.

Fast forward a few years, and I remember attending the junior clinic at what had been renamed the Buick Classic and receiving a Callaway S2H2 driver from Chip Beck. I’ve gone through a lot of clubs since that day, but that’s the only club I’ve ever propped up in my bedroom so I could admire it at night, so pretty it was to me. And then home for the summer after my freshman year at college, I interned for a local radio station at the same event and interviewed the likes of Tom Kite, Vijay Singh and Brandel Chamblee, back when he had some game, and came home and told my dad that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Long story short, I know what having a PGA Tour event in your hometown can do to an impressionable kid. Detroit is touting the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club as “the first-ever PGA Tour event in Detroit.” While that may be technically true, the Buick Open was a happening at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club in Grand Blanc (northwest of Detroit and closer to Flint) for more than 50 years, until 2009, the year that General Motors filed for bankruptcy protection. Kevin Ostby, the former tournament director, told My City Magazine that the final tournament in 2009 raised $1 million for charity, which is nothing to sniff at.

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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.

MORNING READ/ADAM SCHUPAK
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.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic will do many great things for the Detroit community. On Monday, Brandt Snedeker, Cameron Champ, Justin Suh and Zach Bauchou participated in the Rocket Mortgage Classic Kids Clinic. I watched Annika Sorenstam perform a similar function for juniors at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Dennis Walters, the recent World Golf Hall of Fame inductee, has made a living crisscrossing the country performing exhibitions for kids. This all falls under the bucket of “growing the game,” and golf needs more of these activities. But as pro golf revs up the Motor City and attempts to spark interest in the game, where are these new golfers going to play? Municipal golf is the lifeblood of the industry. The feeder system that must thrive for the game to really grow. They often serve as the foundation for learning the game, its customs and etiquette.

Not far from the private course where the pros are competing for $7.3 million sits shuttered Palmer Park, a city-owned course that dates to 1927. Separated from DGC only by Pontchartrain Boulevard, Palmer Park used to be the home of The First Tee of Greater Detroit, a neglected jewel, but a loss-leader with revenues of just $41,354 in 2016 for a city that filed for the largest municipal bailout in history. According to the Detroit Free Press, Palmer Park needed at least $3 million in capital improvements to repair poor drainage, upkeep and overgrown fairways. It closed in 2018 like so many other courses during the ongoing market correction that spans more than a decade.

“We didn’t think it was worth investing money into it,” Brad Dick, the director of Detroit’s General Services Department, told Crains Detroit. “We’re post-bankruptcy and looking to be fiscally responsible.”

The fate of three other city munis – Chandler Park, Rackham, where boxer Joe Louis once was a regular, and Rouge Park – are #1stworldproblems in the grand scheme of things, even if Detroit is suddenly attractive to investors and innovators again. (Golf Detroit, a division of Signet Golf Associates II, a North Carolina-based management company, is in the second year of a two-year lease to run the courses, which reportedly run at a deficit.)

What if the PGA Tour and the Rocket Mortgage Classic made saving municipal golf in the city part of this tournament’s legacy? The First Tee of Detroit is one of the many charities that will benefit financially from the tournament – Bubba Watson made a $20,000 donation on Tuesday – but where will the kids play? Niall Hay has an idea.

In 2015, Hay, a Penske Automotive executive, revived The First Tee of Detroit, which was one of the original chapters in 1997 and ceased operation in 2012. With more than 500 juniors enrolled in The First Tee program here, Hay is organizing an effort to make golf a centerpiece of affecting the larger community surrounding Palmer Park. The PGA Tour loves to tout the success story that is East Lake in Atlanta, a project that has become synonymous with hope and renewal. That happened in the late 1990s. A similar success story is underfoot in New Orleans at City Park. Detroit could make an even bigger impact.

"It would be an East Lake story on steroids because it would impact the whole area," said Hay, who is leading the effort as TFT Detroit board chairman. "You can improve this entire corridor. It would be the perfect case study." (Note to Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans: You’ve saved the city and brought back professional golf. Can you get behind this effort for your next act?)

The cool thing is that there’s an emerging movement for private funding to impact public golf facilities. A group of like-minded golfers formed National Links Trust, a non-profit with a mission to protect “affordability, accessibility and engaging golf course architecture at municipal golf courses throughout the U.S.” Its first project focuses on three Washington layouts: East Potomac, Langston and Rock Creek.

NBC/Golf Channel commentator Mark Rolfing, along with local attorney Brian Hogan, is leading an initiative to revive Jackson Park in Chicago in an ambitious project that includes Tiger Woods’ turning 27 existing holes into 18 that could host the PGA Tour stop there someday.

Atlanta has revived Bobby Jones Golf Course into a reversible course by the late Bob Cupp.

The San Francisco Golf Alliance, a group led by the indefatigable team of Robert Harris and Bo Links, defeated environmentalists in court and has saved Sharp Park, an Alister Mackenzie layout near San Francisco, from closing.

San Francisco’s Harding Park, which will host the 2020 PGA Championship, is a shining example of how the PGA Tour can contribute to the rebirth of a municipal gem. Former USGA president Sandy Tatum led the charge in the early 2000s. Harding Park not only has hosted WGCs and a Presidents Cup,but it’s even become part of the TPC Network.

In October, the PGA Tour will return to Houston after Tom Doak and player consultant Brooks Koepka renovate Memorial Park. If the powers-that-be at the Rocket Mortgage Classic want any advice on how to give back to the local golf community, Houston is paving the way with an annual donation of $500,000 from the Astros Golf Foundation to the First Tee, and beginning in 2020, an annual contribution of $1 million to the city for the benefit of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Memorial Park Conservancy. (The PGA Tour also should step up to help Hall of Famer Ben Crenshaw in his efforts to save Lions Municipal in Austin, Texas.)

And while this is a boon for Detroit golf, it shouldn’t have to be a zero-sum gain. Wouldn’t it be admirable if the Tour stepped up and donated some money from its deep pockets toward the National Links Trust’s efforts to revive the D.C. trio of courses? Nothing would say, We’re sorry you lost the Quicken Loans National in your backyard, but we’ll be back in 2021 when the Wells Fargo Championship visits TPC Potomac at Avenel Farms; in the meantime, go enjoy your refurbished national treasures.

The return of pro golf in Detroit is worth celebrating, but the potential revival of the city’s municipal golf during the other 51 weeks a year would be the real reason to rejoice.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak