Golf tournament puts city's image under microscope
Nate Lashley won the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic, finishing at 25 under, six strokes ahead of the next closest player. He met the media Sunday. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Detroit — Go ahead and call it a comeback.
As the Rocket Mortgage Classic finished on a sun-splashed Sunday, Nate Lashley regained his youthful swing at a golf club rebounding from financial trouble in a city recovering from a bankruptcy.
Detroit’s recovery has taken many forms but this may have been the strangest one yet — the world’s greatest golfers traipsing down a verdant fairway near Palmer Woods.
With suburbanites in attendance and a national audience watching on TV, it was another step as Motown tries to become a place people enjoy, not fear.
“You couldn’t ask for a better day,” said Stephanie Franklin of Farmington Hills. “Everything was perfect.”
While the PGA Tour event was an image booster for its host city, the reality, as reality tends to be, was a bit more complicated.
Just outside the tony precincts of the Detroit Golf Club was a forlorn stretch of Hamilton Avenue in Highland Park that was nobody’s idea of a Miracle Mile.
There were ramshackle buildings without tenants, storefront churches without congregations, traffic lights without traffic. One of the few businesses bought scrap.
At North Park Party Store, a brick building sandwiched by vacant lots, customer Will Moore knew as much about neighboringDetroit’s nascent revival as he did the sport being played a few blocks away.
“It’s downtown,” he said about the city’s resurgence. “It’s not here. We don’t get nothing.”
Indeed, organizers of the tournament steered visitors to an entrance on the other side of the golf club, the more presentable Seven Mile, which had been spruced up by volunteers.
Within the cozier confines of the golf tournament, the first ever held in Detroit, the mood was considerably more upbeat.
Merchandise flew off the shelves of the fan shop, which were barren by Sunday afternoon. The throngs had gobbled up the hats, T-shirts and pin flags.
Pat Sullivan of Dearborn was quaffing a morning libation outside a beer tent along the 14th hole. He was enjoying all of it — the golf, the tree-lined landscape, the Bud Light.
He said the future of Detroit seemed as bright as the weather. And, yes, he was wearing shades.
“It’s great for the city,” he said about the tournament. “It’s great for golf. It’s reaching a new audience.”
He was pulling for veteran Rory Sabbatini, 43, who held his own against younger players Sunday, finishing in third place.
For another spectator, these Detroit sojourns were becoming a regular thing.
Seth Taylor, who hails from the Flint suburb of Grand Blanc, has come for assorted sports spectacles — the Super Bowl, the baseball All-Star Game, the basketball Final Four.
Sometimes he has a ticket, sometimes he doesn’t. He visited Sunday through the largesse of a friend, who had two free passes to the Bank of America grandstand along the 18th fairway.
He’s not even a golf fan but couldn’t pass up such an expensive gift.
As for Detroit, Taylor has started traveling to the city even when it isn’t holding a mammoth sports event. And every visit has been pleasant, he said.
“Detroit gets a bad rap. There’s a bunch of good stuff you never hear about,” he said.
He said he likes all the new restaurants opening downtown and all the people around Campus Martius on weekends.
This, of course, is music to the ears of tourism officials.
The Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau said these big events, one by one, gradually paint a picture of the city as a place with something to offer. It may not be vibrant but it’s got a heartbeat.
Larry Alexander, bureau chief executive, especially loves the TV shots of Detroit’s skyline and closeups of various landmarks.
“What it does for our image is phenomenal. You can’t put a value on it,” he said.
Petoskey's Joey Garber shot a final-round 69 and finished tied for 29th at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He spoke with The News on Sunday. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Next July will be even better, he said. Besides the second year of the golf tournament, the city also will host the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix and North American International Auto Show.
It’s difficult to change one’s reputation, whether you’re Tiger Woods or an aging metropolis, said branding experts. It might be easier for a duffer to bag three eagles in a row.
The image of Detroit is a city stuck in the past, said Mike Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.
That’s why hosting the golf tournament is a godsend, he said. It shows the city is a player in current events.
“It’s wonderful exposure,” he said. “It makes a difference on a regional and national basis.”
Because these events are held on such a grand scale, they also carry risks, said Bernacchi. Missteps can be amplified through the wide media coverage.
Brian Stuard, a Jackson native, shot a final-round 68 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic and tied for fifth at Detroit Golf Club. He met the media late Sunday. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
While images are hard to change, they’re easy to reinforce, said marketing experts.
Attendance for the tournament, which ran Thursday to Sunday, was not released. Tournaments don't release those figures these says, said tournament executive director Jason Langwell, but when they did, it was typically "somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000."
“We think we’re gonna operate on the high end of that range,” he said.
The golf tournament hit a snafu Friday when the wife of Wayne County Executive Warren Evans was confronted by a security officer demanding to see her credentials allowing access to a clubhouse at the 18th hole.
Renata Evans, whose credentials hung around her neck, said she was the only black woman present and the guard didn’t request the credentials of any of the white guests. She said the incident smacked of racism.
“This is unacceptable, disrespectful and sad,” she wrote on Facebook.
Tournament officials said the guard worked for one of their contractors and was quickly dispatched.
“We were very sorry to learn about Mr. and Mrs. Evans’ poor experience,” said Jason Langwell, tournament executive director. “As soon as we heard of this situation, we worked with his employer to ensure the guard no longer has any affiliation with our tournament.”