Wojo: PGA Tour's first stop in Detroit is another ace in city's revival

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Another line — symbolic or otherwise — is about to be crossed. Another link in Detroit’s ever-expanding reach is about to be added.

Actually, it’s several links, connecting a venerable golf course to a revitalized downtown. For the first time, Detroit is poised to land a PGA Tour event, to be held at the Detroit Golf Club starting in June 2019. Quicken Loans officials revealed Monday to The Detroit News that The National, currently held in Washington, D.C., is ready to move to Detroit, with Quicken Loans as the title sponsor.

Officials hope that a showcase event at the Detroit Golf Club can have a positive impact on surrounding areas. The PGA tournament would arrive in June 2019.

The PGA Tour has been absent from the state since the Buick Open left Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc in 2009. For that reason alone, its return is notable. It rises to historic when you consider where the event is headed, to the storied 119-year-old club at Seven Mile and Woodward, outside the downtown bubble but within the limits of a city whose boundaries continue to grow.

It’s the latest bold move by Dan Gilbert’s company, which has invested approximately $5.6 billion in downtown development since 2010. Jay Farner, CEO of Quicken Loans, said it was imperative the tournament be held in Detroit, reflecting the commitment to the ongoing revival.

“We’re heavily invested in Detroit, and this fits our broader mission,” Farner said. “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.”

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It’s a continuation of the civic philosophy that sports and entertainment generate energy and diversity, and yes, revenue. Golf may not be for everyone, just as the Grand Prix on Belle Isle isn’t for everyone, just as Tigers baseball or Pistons basketball isn’t for everyone, just as the Jazz Festival or a Kid Rock concert isn’t for everyone.

But in a major, vibrant city, there should be as many things as possible for everyone, and this is something few thought was possible. There are minor details to finish, but PGA officials have vetted the DGC, signed off on modifications to the two 18-hole courses, and are ready to move. An announcement is expected in the next couple of days.

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“We’re in the final stages of finalizing the agreement,” said Casey Hurbis, Quicken Loans chief marketing officer. “We’ve met with the PGA, the DGC and their executive membership, and they’re very excited. We’re very confident it’ll come together.”

How confident?

“We’re walking up the 18th fairway, we haven’t tipped our cap yet, but we’re just a wedge away,” Hurbis said with a smile. “We’re dang close to the green, with a two-shot lead, in the middle of the fairway.”

The plan is to make this a unique stop on the PGA Tour, connecting the four-day golf tournament with downtown concerts and culinary events that could span several weeks in the early summer. Visions that sprout from Gilbert’s enterprises are never small, from his so-far-unsuccessful gambit to bring Major League Soccer downtown, to his plan to build a $1 billion skyscraper, the city’s tallest.

At a real-estate convention last week at Cobo Center, Gilbert and Christopher Ilitch talked to the audience about their development ideas, and how to further the booming momentum. The billionaires, along with Pistons owner Tom Gores and Lions owner Martha Ford, have worked together on various projects, with the goal of connecting the city’s edges — and demographics — from the central business district, to the Ilitches’ 50-block District Detroit, to the neighborhoods.

Dan Gilbert's Quicken Loans will be the presenting sponsor of a PGA Tour event that's close to landing in Detroit.

Gilbert called it the “big-bang approach” to attracting investors and development, and that means doing things that draw attention and stir excitement. The first PGA Tour event inside Detroit city limits is the lure, but the goal is to make it more inclusive.

“We’re calling it the most meaningful, memorable week of the year in Detroit, and extend it beyond the week of golf to 2-3 weeks of event programming,” said Jason Langwell, executive vice president of Intersport, the sports-marketing agency that will handle the event. “There’s a lot to work with at the DGC. The bones of the course are fantastic and pretty much ready to go with a few slight modifications.”

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Parking would be at the State Fairgrounds, leaving a short walk or shuttle ride to the club. While the DGC is nestled near the upscale Palmer Woods Historic District, it’s not far from troubled neighborhoods, and the hope is that a showcase event can have a positive impact on surrounding areas. Quicken officials note the case of East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, which received a significant economic boost since it began hosting the Tour Championship in 2005.

Are there other, tonier clubs in the area with fabled courses that could more easily host a PGA tournament? Of course. But that’s sort of the point, that it isn’t supposed to be just about golf, but about accessibility.

Farner wouldn’t say how much Quicken will spend in the four-year deal, other than to call it substantial. To help lure The National, Quicken sponsored the event for four years near Washington, where it was hosted by Tiger Woods. It’s unclear if Woods would retain a relationship in Detroit, and whether the Tigers Woods Foundation would be part of the event here.

There are more specifics to be worked out and deals to be made, but the big deal is all but done, another border erased.

“This is one of the great American cities, always has been, and great American cities should have great events,” Farner said. “We’ve been doing golf for quite a few years, we like it, we think it’s fun, we work with (pro golfer) Rickie Fowler and it attracts a wide audience. Why not use golf as a jumping-off point to show people all the cool things that are happening in Detroit?”

It’s different and attention-grabbing and creative, and offers an interesting blend of progressiveness and nostalgia. For a city coming together in ways it hasn’t in decades, it’s always encouraging to replace old lines with fresh links.