Henning: PGA Tour event will add to Michigan golf luster

By Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
People play golf on the Detroit Golf Club course, as seen from Fairway Drive, which borders the club on the west.

Now that the PGA Tour has decided a golf-starved region is due for some dining, you can all but see an orange-clad Rickie Fowler, or Tiger in his Sunday red and black, prancing down fairways as the Rocket Mortgage Classic is in early-stage assembly for its liftoff next June at Detroit Golf Club.

Lots of chatter centers on what this could mean to Detroit, and specifically to the area around DGC. There is happy talk about economic impact, which might or might not be valid, and which seems to a person who knows that area from once having lived there for seven years to be incidental when Palmer Woods, Palmer Park, Sherwood Forest, and Green Acres are doing quite well, thank you, and when the nearby Avenue of Fashion, venerable Livernois, has rebounded in remarkable ways.

Separate from dollar-sign notions about a Tour stop’s effects, the best reason for why it’s good to have a Tour event in Detroit, and in Michigan, is because a city and state steeped in the game deserve celebrity golf.  

Some of us, including a then-20-year-old college kid, were there that Sunday in August 1972 when Gary Player parked his 9-iron shot over the willow tree at No. 16 for a birdie that iced the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.

And while most of us weren’t yet born, those who dig golf history can recite Ben Hogan’s eternal line after winning the 1951 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills when he yanked at his white cap, wiped sweat from his forehead, and told a group congratulating him that he had brought a monster of a golf course to its knees.

That same South Course, as golf scholars know every bit as much as golf’s serious locals, was originally designed by Donald Ross, which is a bit like having had Michelangelo do your house plan. Ross also designed the layouts at Detroit Golf Club, both of which will be on display next June, when the North Course, where the tournament will be played, borrows a stitch from the South Course in a bid to make it extra sturdy for the Tour bombers.

Ross figures in any testimonial to Michigan golf and to why a state deserved a Tour stop after too many years minus a major championship, or even a Buick Open at Grand Blanc.

Ross designed not only Oakland Hills and DGC’s two tracks, but was the genius behind a neighboring masterpiece, Franklin Hills, not to mention Rackham, on the edge of the Detroit Zoo, and the sadly abandoned Rogell course. He was Henry Ford’s pick to carve 18 holes at Dearborn Country Club, which a few generations later hosted a Senior Tour Players Championship and an LPGA visit known as The Lady Stroh’s Open. These courses were, and are, places from Ross’ international gallery where golf-design historians and connoisseurs still gather as if on Holy Land tours.

Another of those artists who a few hundred years earlier could have given da Vinci a run for his lira, Alister Mackenzie, joined with Perry Maxwell to etch Crystal Downs, along the Lake Michigan bluffs near Sleeping Bear Dunes, one of Mackenzie’s Louvre-worthy works at about the time he was laying out a couple of places named Augusta National and Cypress Point.

This is a mansion on Hamilton Road in the Detroit Golf Club Community.

We can talk, also, from Michigan’s golf’s archives of the six U.S. Opens and three PGA Championships at Oakland Hills, and of the Ryder Cup in 2004, also at Oakland Hills, and the U.S. Amateurs and U.S. Senior Opens there. Neither will we forget Senior Tour duels at the TPC in Dearborn.

We know of a U.S. Amateur at another local treasure, Country Club of Detroit, in 1954, when Arnold Palmer won at a course originally shaped by another of those Rembrandt design names, Colt and Alison.

We won’t overlook Indianwood in Lake Orion, and its richness, beginning with Wilfrid Reid’s architecture, and in its turns as a tournament venue, including 1930, when the Western Open, which in those days was a giant of an event, was played at Indianwood (winner: Gene Sarazen), as were a pair of U.S. Women’s Opens (winners: Betsy King, Patty Sheehan).

More:Michigan's Tom Gillis, now 50, takes aim at Champions Tour

More:Oakland Hills' South Course getting makeover, closing from 2019-21

We can talk of Horton Smith, golf professional at Detroit Golf Club who happened to have won the first-ever Masters.

And we can grin at the legacy of one Walter Hagen, who won 11 major championships, who was the first golf professional at Oakland Hills, and whose residence for a spell was the Detroit Athletic Club, which during those merry times recorded more than a few extravagant bar bills under the name “Hagen, W,” as his nocturnal escapades, almost all true, unfolded.

Walter Hagen

Those who understand Hagen was one of golf’s Mount Rushmore faces might also know that Sir Walter is buried at Southfield's Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, and died in Traverse City, a region that gave us throughout the great golf north, more gold: Crystal Downs; Belvedere Country Club, and, in later years, the Boyne Mountain archipelago of courses, including Bay Harbor. Farther down the coast, and moving into the interior, there is Kingsley Club, Grand Traverse Resort (The Bear, courtesy of Jack Nicklaus), Arcadia Bluffs, Shanty Creek, Forest Dunes, Tullymore, the courses at Treetops, and, yes, Black Forest, which like his gem, Lost Dunes, in the state’s southwest corner, was conceived by Traverse City dweller Tom Doak. Even now Doak wends his way into conversations as golf-design gourmets rhapsodize about Ross and Mackenzie and that great gang of design geniuses whose work a century ago was part of golf-architecture’s gilded times.

This isn’t to slight Robert Trent Jones, Sr., or Jones, Jr., or Art Hills, or Tom Fazio, or Rick Smith, or Ray Hearn, or the Matthews brothers, or Bill Newcomb, or any other craftsman whose golf-design minds have acted like Michigan’s old glaciers in leaving lovely imprints.

 And that, finally, is why all these places and these people who have combined to make Michigan part of golf’s global tapestry are part of a celebration now that Tour golf is returning to Detroit.

It wasn’t destined to be a shutout. Not for much longer. Oakland Hills is revamping the South Course and soon enough will host another major championship.

But it’s right to have an actual Tour stop on the calendar, with DGC a perfect landing spot, again thanks to its roots and lore.

Those who think fancifully about next June’s tournament and what its economics can do for Detroit are probably onto something. Those thoughts also can be romanticized, it seems, which is why a call was placed this week to Eric Larson, CEO of the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

“Is having a PGA tournament, on its own, the next big catalyst?” Larson asked, repeating a question. “Maybe, maybe not. The reality is every one of these events gives more credibility to Detroit’s comeback to those who aren’t here, or living as closely to it as we are.

“That is worth its weight in gold.”

For analysts counting on cash registers spinning the week of the tournament and around it, there will be gains, Larson acknowledges. But the real dividend probably comes from Detroit’s dateline and skyline attached to all the stories and TV hours that are tied to any Tour stop.

If you’re looking for Palmer Park to become Boston’s Brookline, it probably won’t happen. But look beyond, well beyond, neighborhoods and what a week of overnighting and spending will bring to the town’s coffers.

“What this event says is that Detroit takes sports seriously,” Larson said. “It often takes a big event to get people focused on a city’s revival.

“I don’t want to minimize the chance for change in and around that (DGC) district, but the long game, locally and nationally and internationally, is that we continue to encourage and demonstrate to outside investors and developers, and tenants and residents, that Detroit is a place that is moving forward.”

So, there’s your Rocket Mortgage Classic financial prospectus.

The rest of us are simply happy Tour golf is back in a town, and in a state, where a noble game has been entrenched and celebrated.

Let’s tee it up.