Why didn't lowest scorer win the Michigan PGA Championship?

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Ben Cook finished with the lowest score at the Michigan PGA Championship, but wasn't declared the official winner.

Nobody finished the three-day Michigan PGA Professional Championship with a lower score than Ben Cook.

But years from now, when you check out the Gilbert A. Currie Trophy and scroll down to 2018, his name will be nowhere to be found.

Because of a decades-old rule that Michigan PGA executives don't recall ever coming into play until this week at Flint Golf Club, Cook was declared ineligible to be the official champion — even though he still got to collect the $6,700 first-place prize and a coveted spot in the 2019 PGA Professional National Championship.

Meanwhile, the "official" champion was Lee Houtteman, who finished one stroke back of Cook.

"The awards presentation was a new one for me," said Kevin Helm, executive director of the Michigan PGA. "It's a confusing matter."

So, what's up with that?

Let's try to explain.

The Michigan PGA has a rule that applies for three of its four major tournaments — the Michigan PGA, the Michigan Open, the Michigan PGA Match Play (but not for the Tournament of Champions) — saying to be eligible for the championship, you must be employed as a PGA professional at a course in Michigan for at least 60 days.

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Nobody at the Michigan PGA can say for sure when that rule was implemented, though it goes back at least prior to Helm's tenure, which began in 1996. Also, nobody at the Michigan PGA can say for sure exactly why the rule was implemented, but the popular theory is officials didn't want golfers from out of state playing the carpet-bagger game and "cherry-picking" money and championships in Michigan.

That's an odd explanation, though, since Cook, who started at Cascade Hills in Grand Rapids in late July, still was deemed eligible to receive prize money.

"I'm not sure what the main reason for the rule is," Helm told The News on Thursday, a day after the Michigan PGA was completed.


Entries and entry fees into the Michigan PGA are filtered through the national chapter — which puts on the PGA Professional National Championship — and Michigan PGA officials didn't catch the Cook situation until after the completion of the first round Monday.

Until the mid-2000s, the Michigan PGA held two separate events — the Michigan PGA Championship as well as a national-championship qualifier. Under that schedule, Cook would've been eligible for the qualifier, but not the Michigan PGA. Now with just the one event, the Michigan PGA has to take players like Cook, because the national rules trump the state rules. 

Still, officials had to awkwardly approach Cook mid-tournament and explain the situation.

"Ben's done nothing wrong, I want to make that clear," Helm said. "And I can't say enough about how classy he was when we told him.

"He was probably the most understanding of it out of everyone."

Said Cook, a Caledonia native and 2017 Ferris State graduate: "I beat everybody, won a nice check and I get to go to the PNC. Those were my goals this week. I understand the situation. This is great for me and my confidence."

Lee Houtteman was named the official winner of the Michigan PGA Championship, after surviving a sudden-death playoff.

It's not exactly a great look for the Michigan PGA, though, which Helm acknowledged.

Michigan PGA section members meet every fall to discuss issues and possible rules changes, and Helm expects this obscure rule to be addressed — and quite possibly scrapped. The rule has rarely, if ever, come into play, Helm said, since most golf courses make their hires in the winter months, given plenty of time to reach the 60 days of eligibility before the Michigan PGA's schedule of competitive tournaments begins in May.

"This is a very unique situation," Helm said. "It could've happened several times over the years. It just didn't."

Cook shot a final-round 69 to finish at 10 under, a shot ahead of Houtteman of Manitou Passage in Cedar and and Scott Hebert of Traverse City Golf & Country Club. With Cook ineligible for the title, Houtteman made a birdie on the first sudden-death playoff hole to beat Hebert and "win" the 97th Michigan PGA.

Michigan will send 11 players to the 2019 PGA Professional National Championship in Bluffton, S.C., from April 28 through May 1. Those players include Cook, Houtteman, Hebert, Scott Brotebeck of Flint Golf Club, Jeff Roth of Boyne Highlands, Bob Ackerman of Bob Ackerman Golf Academy, Travis Dodson of Meadowbrook in Northville, Brian Cairns of Fox Hills in Plymouth, Josh Fryer of Franklin Hills, Kyle Martin of Lochmoor in Grosse Pointe Woods and John Seltzer of Blythefield in Grand Rapids.

The Michigan PGA receives nine spots into the national tournament, but Hebert and Roth were exempt as past national champions.

At nationals, the top 25 finishers earn spots into the PGA Championship, which in 2019 moves to May from August, its longtime spot on the calendar.