Detroit Golf Club's rich history is idyllic PGA Tour backdrop

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Green speeds will be among the topics of conversation for a PGA event at Detroit Golf Club.

Golf courses are historical timelines dotted with trees and thick with green sod. Their aesthetics, alone, can beat any museum tour.

Think of Detroit Golf Club and its heritage. Of the tree on the North Course, between the seventh and eighth holes, which as a sapling was bent by Native Americans as a marker along the trail that extended from Pontiac to the Detroit River, otherwise known today as Woodward Avenue.

Reflect on the original 45 acres, then farmland, rented by William R. Farrand and some partners in 1899 for what would become a six-hole layout. Ponder how a few years later it would expand by 135 acres ahead of a full 18-hole course’s arrival, and how, after more land was added, an architectural genius and Scotsman named Donald Ross would oversee the sprouting of two 18-hole tracts, the simply named North and South courses.

It is the North Course at DGC that in 13 months will become a sports venue with national focus. Although contract ink hasn’t yet dried, and DGC members have yet to vote, the PGA Tour is returning to Michigan, probably during the final weekend of June in 2019. What now stands as The National, at Potomac, Md., is set to become a DGC event sponsored by Quicken Loans, should tentative plans be finalized.

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The impact will be heavy, locally, and, perhaps, even more broadly in terms of a Metro Detroit area and a state rich in golf lore regaining some old prestige.

Oakland Hills Country Club, in Bloomfield Hills, remains a giant on the game’s world stage. It has been for generations a major-championship choice and a Ryder Cup venue.

A bit short on length

DGC does not compare, in a strict competitive context. It will not compare even after design and tactical tweaks are made ahead of next June that will extend the course from 7,071 yards to 7,200, perhaps with help from the South Course’s 13th hole.

But what an evolutionary arc this PGA Tour stop stands to follow at a club where golf heritage is as rich and imposing as the magnificent Alfred Kahn-designed clubhouse that was begun in 1916. It is, in fact, DGC’s first club professional and president, Horton Smith, who in 1934 won an inaugural golf tournament arranged by grand-slam champion Bobby Jones at Augusta National Golf Club. It was the first Masters.

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The tournament also has a chance to become part of Detroit’s ever-revealing makeover and urban renaissance. This is a City of Detroit venue between Six Mile and Seven Mile, bordered by Woodward to the east, Livernois to the west, and marked to the north and south by some of the most pastoral residential areas in the city: the Palmer Park, Sherwood Forest, Green Acres neighborhoods. Step inside these grand old homes with their leaded windows and Tudor designs, and this is not every person’s image of Detroit.

It is farther to the east and to the west that urban America’s cold realities can likewise be found: poverty, blight, crime, despair.

The Alfred Kahn-designed clubhouse that was begun in 1916 reflects the rich heritage of the Detroit Golf Club.

Can a four-day golf tournament realistically push beyond its acreage to help revitalize a decayed area? Tournament sponsors and organizers believe so, using as an example East Lake Country Club in Atlanta, which was an early golf home to Jones, and which after it deteriorated in the 1960s was resurrected by golf and urban preservationists. The area, which is five miles east of downtown Atlanta, was reclaimed in great part because of momentum gained when the Tour Championship, which now is played there every year, made its East Lake debut 20 years ago.

Still, there are issues with DGC’s tourney site, although none that has scared off tournament organizers, much less the PGA Tour, which happens to be fastidiously precise about its event requirements.

Parking is one priority and looks as if it will be handled by way of shuttle buses from the nearby State Fairgrounds.

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A practice facility strong enough to keep the Tour players happy as they bomb tee shots and sharpen their irons and short games is also a necessity DGC can’t, within its acreage, offer. The problem is solved if a portion of next-door neighbor Palmer Park Golf Course is converted to a swank tune-up track, which is among tentative plans being considered.

Another hurdle is making DGC North a competitive PGA tour layout with sharp teeth rather than soft gums.

Golfers blasting tee shots 340 yards was nothing Ross envisioned 100 years ago when he was configuring fairways, and smoothing and shaping greens, to receive risk-reward shots whacked by hickory clubs.

The North Course today plays at 7,071 yards — far beneath the 7,400- and 7,500-yard monsters that tend to populate the Tour calendar. Those familiar with plans but who asked to remain nameless until the event is formally announced say the North Course can be stretched to 7,200 yards, which, while relatively short, satisfies Tour inspectors.

One idea pertains to the par-5 14th and to a green that mandates approach shots carry a healthy pond. The hole plays 500 yards from its gold tee, which can be a drive and a wedge for the Tour’s big boys. That changes if the 14th tee pushes back 100 yards into the South Course’s 13th hole and makes it a 600-yard bruiser.

Or, it shifts, perhaps more dramatically, if the tee is moved ahead a tad and the hole plays as a long and potentially murderous par-4.

Toughening softer courses

Another way in which softer courses can be toughened is with tall, thick rough — heavy grass flanking each fairway. There are early notions at DGC of having rough in the 31/2-inch range, which would bite Tour players whose intercontinental tee shots land somewhere other than on the short-turf target.

What the DGC and Tour minds understand is a national golf audience, apart from wanting Tigers Woods as part of any Saturday-Sunday drama, loves the chill from holes that can punish and even destroy a golfer.

A too-tame Warwick Hills Country Club in Grand Blanc suffered during its Buick Open days from any such peril. Scores were more reflective of birdie binges than any calamity. Can the North at DGC offer enough potential mayhem?

“That’s the $2 billion question, and it goes beyond Detroit Golf Club,” said Ray Hearn, a Detroit native who heads Raymond Hearn Design, in Holland, and who has designed a number of courses in Michigan, the United States and abroad. “What they’ll probably do — and I’m speculating — is have a PGA Tour consultant and a golf-course architect collaborate on some revisions.”

Among their conversations will be green-speed during any DGC/Tour event. The North’s greens are bound to be slick. But to what end? Ross was a greens chess-master whose work, while relatively untouched on the South Course, was revised — some critics would say ruined — during a series of course alterations that began in the 1970s.

“Every private club is in love with green speed,” Hearn said. “They all want to be 12-14 on a Stimpmeter. But when you have Donald Ross, Alister Mackenzie, (A.W.) Tillinghast, Seth Raynor, C.B. Macdonald — classic architects when greens were at a 5 or a 6 — those greens weren’t meant for these speeds.

“I don’t know how DGC is going to do it,” Hearn said. “But in my opinion, it’s such a great layout — both courses — and they have a great, great maintenance staff. Can they work it all out for a Tour event?


Ironically, it’s because the South Course’s greens, as well as its routing, have been so true to Ross’ original design that it is regarded by the membership’s connoisseurs, as well as by non-member critics, as the superior golf layout. The North wins for one reason only: It is longer.

More than a few who lament some of the North Course’s “revisions” wish those old DGC greens committees had left Ross’ original work alone. What an enhancement it would be for the Tour maestros.

“I’m a little worried about the North greens being too easy,” said Nick Ficorelli, a Chesterfield Township resident and for 25 years a course evaluator for Golfweek. “They used to be really, really good.

“The South’s are better — as good as any set of greens anywhere. Here’s the thing about the North Course: When I watch PGA Tour players playing, say, a 1916 golf course, it’s disappointing if those greens have been weakened. There’s nothing more boring than watching guys make 30-footers that don’t break.

“And if the greens are too easy, you’ve got 16 under, or a lot more under, winning.”

These, of course, are matters to be chewed on and settled once the DGC event is finalized and preparations formally begin — in a hurry.

Until then, the buzz from inside an old clubhouse is more like a crackle. The Tour looks as if it’s returning to Detroit, to a lovely venue as filled with golf grandeur as a region and a state hungry to reconnect with the game’s showcase stars.