Paul: Aces (a lot) and duffs (a few) from the Rocket Mortgage Classic
Detroit — A look back at the highs (a lot) and lows (a few) of last weekend's Rocket Mortgage Classic:
Every year, this is a hot topic. And while there have been headliners in previous years — Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson — we said before this year's tournament that this was the deepest field we've ever seen at Detroit Golf Club. The results proved it, with a star taking home the title in Tony Finau, and followed closely by one of the best players in the game, in world No. 4 Patrick Cantlay, and one of the game's top up-and-comers, rookie-of-the-year favorite Cameron Young. While fan favorites Will Zalatoris and Max Homa didn't seriously contend, they did finish tied for 20th and tied for 24th, respectively. Sahith Theegala made a run early in the week. Jason Day tied for 17th. There was a line in a New York Post column from the LIV event at Bedminster suggesting that field was more interesting than the one in Detroit. Rubbish.
Detroit Golf Club superintendent Jake Mendoza's staff did miracle work in 2021, getting that tournament in despite days of punishing rains. The Rocket Mortgage Classic got great weather this week, but Mendoza and Co. still deserve props for keeping it in tip-top shape, despite a couple days of high temperatures and some heavy winds that threatened to firm up the Donald Ross gem to the point where it'd play unfair, particularly on the greens. Birdies were aplenty at the fourth Rocket, as they always are, but it wasn't exactly a pushover, either. You still had to drive it well (some errant tee shots cost Young dearly this week in his quest for win No. 1) and play the angles, and maneuver some tricky greens. Sahith Theegala was over par on the weekend. Max Homa opened with 72. Adam Scott shot a Saturday 78. Taylor Pendrith shot a final-round 72.
It's not an exact science to break down the galleries at any PGA Tour event, because the PGA Tour doesn't provide attendance figures. But from our eyeballs, we'd call this the second-best-attended Rocket, behind only the first playing in 2019, when fans came in droves to welcome the PGA Tour to the city limits of Detroit for the first time. There were no fans in 2020 because of COVID, and in 2021, Rocket officials didn't get the go-ahead from the state to open up capacity until just weeks before the first tee shot. The fans came back in full force this year, particularly on Sunday. The only quibble here: the early-week crowds, particularly practice days Tuesday (celebrity scramble, youth clinic) and Wednesday (pro-am), which seemed light, despite free admission for everyone. Rocket officials probably could've done a better job spreading the word on that.
The Rocket Mortgage Classic has been blessed with a good story from every one of its four champions. In 2019, it was little-known Nate Lashley earning his first PGA Tour victory — and sharing his story of overcoming tragedy. In 2020, big bomber Bryson DeChambeau came to DGC, said he was going to overpower the Donald Ross course, and did just that, to stage a Sunday rally past Matthew Wolff. And in 2021, there was another first-time winner in Cam Davis, eagling the 17th hole Sunday, then surviving a five-hole playoff over Joaquin Niemann (one hole) and Troy Merritt (five holes). This year, the Rocket made a champion out of another star in Tony Finau, who won for the fourth time on the PGA Tour, third time in the last calendar year, and second time in as many weeks. He has shot up to No. 13 in the world rankings.
THE OTHER GOOD STORIES
Every week on the PGA Tour, which is the dream of so many golfers growing up, there are many great stories outside of just the winner — especially this past week at the Rocket, which was moved to right before the FedEx Cup playoffs, putting so much more on the line (making the playoffs, keeping your playing card, etc.). One that stood out to me this was was California's KK Limbhasut, who figures he's probably played in 45 Monday qualifiers over the past three years, and only made it twice: nce in 2020, when he missed the cut by a stroke. And this week, out of The Orchards in Washington Township. He tied for 44th and made more than $25,000. Then there was Joohyung "Tom" Kim, 20, who was given a last-minute sponsor's exemption, finished seventh with a final-round 63, earned $283,500, and secured his PGA Tour card for next season.
This has quickly become one of my favorite parts of Rocket Mortgage Classic week — the John Shippen National Invitational, which started strong in 2021, and was even better in 2022. The event was founded here, the nation's most-predominantly Black big city, as a way to create opportunities for golfers of color. It brings together the top golfers of color, professional and amateur, without tour status, for an all-expenses paid trip to Detroit, competing for a spot in the PGA Tour tournament. Wyatt Worthington II, of Ohio, won the 36-hole tournament before the tournament this year. Timothy O'Neal, of Georgia, won it last year. Neither made the cut at the Rocket, but that's not the point. They got a shot, and each pocketed thousands of dollars — no small thing. This is the first of its kind on the PGA Tour, but shouldn't be the last.
The first three playings of the Rocket raised more than $5 million for local charities, and the tournament is poised to make another big donation to its chief cause, ending Detroit's digital divide by 2025, as well as other chief beneficiaries, the Children's Foundation, Detroit Police Athletic League, First Tee Greater Detroit, Midnight Golf, Human-I-T and the Greater Palmer Park Community. Nearly $400,000 was raised throughout the week in AREA 3-1-3, where Rocket Mortgage pledges a $5,000 donation for every eagle on the par-5 14th (there were 12), $10,000 for every ace at the par-3 15th (there was one) and $5,000 for every birdie at the par-4 16th (there were 64). By the end of this year, at least 22 technology hubs will be up and running throughout the city, providing residents access to the internet, technology and digital-literacy courses.
Every year, the Rocket Mortgage Classic runs more smooth than it did the previous year, and that's not by accident — and it's not just because of the people you often see on your TV screen, like Jason Langwell, executive director of the tournament. It's in large part because of the volunteers, an army of more than 1,200 (trained and overseen by former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer and Sommer Woods, who also co-founded the Shippen). These people, men and women, young and old, give up many hours during tournament week to run the gates, spot golf balls, keep galleries quiet, cater to golfers, run the concession stands, park cards and so much more. Sure, volunteering is a way to get up close to the best golfers in the world, but volunteers do a whole lot more than that. And they actually pay to volunteer, $75 for adults, $35 for students 18 and older.
There were two more aces at the Rocket (Mark Hubbard, Rory Sabbatini), bringing the tournament total to six. Hubbard's was hilarious Thursday, when he hit his tee shot at 11, dropped his club in disgust, muttered how it was "embarrassing," then watched it go in the hole. It's customary to buy beer for your playing partners and the clubhouse when you make an ace, but Hubbard went a step further, ordering up Oberons for the media (who, amazingly, didn't finish the cooler). ... Smart decision moving the merch tent to the front entrance, and providing a bag valet. It led to sellouts of more items than in past years. ... Kudos to the players, who again rarely turned down a chance to toss a souvenir to a young fan walking off the 18th green. ... Moving the tournament off July 4 weekend was a very nice change of pace. Unfortunately, that won't last.
I've harped on this before, and it's not a shot at the tournament officials — it's more of a directive to the fans. With so much action going on in this stretch, including the par-5 14th, the par-3 15th and the par-4 16th, there's usually plenty of reason to make some noise (and if it floats your boat, act a fool!). But in Year 4, it still hasn't quite provided the buzz and energy that Rocket Mortgage Classic officials had hoped when the event was launched in 2019. The vision from the start was to create an amphitheater not unlike the rowdiest hole on the PGA Tour, the 16th at the Phoenix Open. So far, there's little comparison, other than CBS putting Colt Knost and Amanda Balionis in AREA 313 for Saturday's telecast. Maybe there needs to be an emcee out there, or musical spurts between shots, or an all-you-can-drink ticket that includes an Uber ride home.
ONE COURSE QUIBBLE
I love Detroit Golf Club, and most of the players do, too. It's old-school and not tricked out. It's right there in front of you. What you see is what you get. So, go get it. But if I were to suggest one slight alteration, it's this: Give us a driveable par 4 already. Sure, four of the par 4s on the course are already under 400 yards, and for most of the guys on the PGA Tour, that makes them drive-and-chips — if they take driver off the tee. But one great change the PGA Tour has made in the past several years is creating more risk-reward par 4s that are reachable off the tee for those who want to go for it. These holes create drama on the scorecard and the fans love 'em. I'm not saying the Rocket should have one every day, and for the first two days, when pace of play is an issue, it probably shouldn't. But moving tees up on one par 4 for Saturday, "Moving Day," would be fun.
The Rocket Mortgage Classic does a very good job promoting Detroit, but it could do more. And they could start with the food options available on site. One of the best parts of the Meijer LPGA Classic, the tournament outside Grand Rapids that draws one of the best galleries on that tour for a regular-season event, is the food, specifically the local eats and drinks they welcome in — first with the Grand Taste, and then starting this past year, with J Brewers. For an upgraded ticket, fans are treated to an all-you-can-eat experience, featuring food from several local and minority-owned restaurants. It's always a huge hit with the fans, and even players (I've rarely talked to an LPGA player who doesn't mention that, and they were bummed when it was cut out in 2021 because of COVID). Detroit has so much great food. Maybe bring more of those restaurants into the fold.
HOLE RANKINGS, EASIEST TO HARDEST
►No. 11, par 3: 3.159
►No. 12, par 4: 4.135
►No. 6, par 4: 4.129
►No. 9, par 3: 3.103
►No. 18, par 4: 4.081
►No. 16, par 4: 4.026
►No. 15, par 3: 3.009
►No. 8, par 4: 3.967
►No. 2, par 4: 3.915
►No. 13, par 3: 3.906
►No. 5, par 3: 2.904
►No. 10, par 4: 3.878
►No. 3, par 4: 3.871
►No. 1, par 4: 3.867
►No. 14, par 5: 4.736
►No. 4, par 5: 4.675
►No. 7, par 5: 4.555
►No. 17, par 5: 4.483
►Triple-bogeys or worse: 8
►Below 70: 177
►Below par: 302
►Par and below: 352
►Par and over: 156
►Over 80: 1
ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC CHAMPS
►2019: Nate Lashley, -25
►2020: Bryson DeChambeau, -23
►2021: Cam Davis, -18 (won in playoff)
►2022: Tony Finau, -26
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