Henning: Warwick Hills back as golf destination
Grand Blanc — We’ll now pause for a moment of candor.
It’s football season.
The idea that a golf tournament, the Ally Challenge, would seriously distract from Ann Arbor on Saturday, or from the Lions’ antics at San Francisco on Sunday, no matter how desperately Lions followers need a break from their mounting grief, is not within the definition of realistic.
And yet they played a 54-hole weekend tournament at Warwick Hills Country Club, and it was better than good as the 50-and-older golf celebs turned out.
Crowds were light but zesty for the PGA Tour Champions stop at a grand old Tour outpost that hadn’t hosted a spotlight tournament since the Buick Open called it quits here in 2009.
Bleachers around the 17th green weren’t as crazy as they were in the Buick Open days when you wondered if the 17th should be policed by security or by lion-tamers.
But there were throngs at all the usual gallery gathering places, not to mention at the hospitality tents that seemed to be doing just fine with plenty of patrons and with streams of cold drinks flowing on an unusually hot and humid late-summer weekend.
The leaderboard was strong and would have been more dramatic had Mark O’Meara and Tom Lehman, a couple of billboard guys from their PGA Tour days, hung on and put some heat on Englishman Paul Broadhurst, who was playing for the first time at Warwick Hills.
Broadhurst will be back, and not only because a defending champion is expected to return to the place where he cashed his $300,000 check. He rather liked Warwick Hills, finishing with a lightning-bolt approach over the flag at 18 and a birdie to beat Brandt Jobe by two shots, and O’Meara and Lehman by three.
Broadhurst said Warwick Hills reminded him, in all seriousness, of Saint-Nom-la-Breteche, a course in France where a Parisian golf party known as the Trophee Lancome has been played.
“It’s (Warwick Hills is) a European-type course,” said Broadhurst, who has done most of his professional work on the European Tour. “And, of course, that’s what I’m used to.”
One takeaway from the Ally Challenge perhaps bigger and better than Broadhurst’s first-place cash is that Warwick Hills is back as a golf destination.
There is a Michigan historical marker adjacent to the first hole. It’s heading is, of course, “Buick Open,” and it tells the story of how Tour golf came to this site in 1958 as a novel concept. There would be corporate sponsorship (horrors!) and new Buicks for the players to drive during their days in Grand Blanc.
The tourney caught on during a couple of different eras until a fractured economy and its auto-industry bruises finally folded it.
It’s telling that a different Tour — what used to be called the Seniors — with a different sponsor, Ally Financial, are now the marquee cast. American industry has changed during the past decade. And so, too, have the regular Tour’s big boys.
The course 10 or even 20 years ago was dangerously short for regular Tour behemoths, which those old scores and their 20-something-beneath-par scores made clear.
But it holds up fine for the guys with gray beneath their visors. Broadhurst won with a three-day score of 15 under. That’s good for galleries who like birdies and good enough for guys 50 and 60 who can still bomb tee shots 280 or more.
Lehman, of course, has had his golf moments in Michigan, none tougher than the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills when he and Davis Love III finished a stroke behind Steve Jones.
Lehman is 59 and from Minnesota. He gets Warwick Hills. He gets Grand Blanc.
He had just signed his scorecard and was signing a few dozen autographs for kids and for, well, bigger kids who had gathered against ropes outside a media area.
Lehman pulled off his golf cap. It had been hot Sunday, as it had been hot all week in Grand Blanc, and Lehman’s face was scorched red.
What, exactly, distinguished this place and tournament in the mind of a man who has played so many venues in his Tour life?
“I think it’s the crowd,” Lehman said. “There’s a real family feel here. The committee, the club — you feel like you’re in your hometown.”
As tributes go, Warwick Hills can live with Lehman’s words and get busy working on next year’s reunion, which is expected to be played a bit earlier on the calendar.
A good appetizer, this week’s event was, as Michigan gets back in the business of hosting Tour golf.
The Rocket Mortgage Classic is heading to Detroit Golf Club in June. Fans in these parts are hungry, even on a football weekend in September, for a game that for too long had been away.