Detroit News sports writer Tony Paul on the upcoming Rocket Mortgage Classic after spending a day on the historic course. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News
Detroit — Dan Gilbert and his Quicken Loans right-hand man, Jay Farner, began talking about this possibility years ago, even before the mega-mortgage lender became the presenting sponsor of a PGA Tour tournament in suburban Washington, D.C.
Sure, Gilbert and Farner were interested in getting involved with the PGA Tour — but it came with a not-so-subtle catch.
Detroit had to be a part of the PGA Tour's future.
"This is a passion of ours, for Quicken Loans, for many years," Farner, Quicken Loans' CEO, said Tuesday, during a media showcase day at Detroit Golf Club ahead of next month's Rocket Mortgage Classic.
"For five years, we did that in D.C., and it was a great event, but the mission the entire time was to bring the first PGA Tour tournament event here to the city.
"The PGA Tour was great in working for us, trying to find an open spot on the calendar."
That spot finally came up in 2019, and Detroit was given the tournament — and as a thank you, Quicken Loans sponsored The National outside D.C. for a fifth year, one beyond the original commitment.
The National often was a well-to-do-event on the PGA Tour calendar, especially with the tournament's main charitable beneficiary being Tiger Woods' foundation.
There still is no word if Woods will play in Detroit — he's not likely to announce until the last possible day, the Friday before the tournament starts — but tournament organizers already are feeling the buzz, with or without the greatest golfer of his generation, and one who just so happens to have won this year's Masters.
And part of that buzz, said Jason Langwell, executive director of the tournament, has not everything to do with the golf course or the golfers, but rather Detroit itself.
The tournament week will feature much more than just a golf tournament, including a 5K in downtown Detroit, golfer meet-and-greets at Campus Martius, a wives-and-spouses party at the Shinola Hotel in Detroit, among other planned but not-yet-announced events. Tournament organizers are thrilled the annual downtown Detroit fireworks show is the Monday of tournament week. That was the vision of Gilbert and Farner — make the four days of golf the thrilling conclusion to a much bigger week.
In the years ahead — Quicken Loans has a four-year deal with the PGA Tour — the goal is to make it even bigger and better, with events spread throughout all corners of Detroit.
"The spotlight is gonna be to feature ... this is a great place to work, it's a great place to live, it's a great place to play," Langwell said. "We want them leaving here thinking, this is not a comeback story, but Detroit is back."
Detroit Golf Club, expanded to its current 36-hole layout more than 100 years ago, was looking particularly sharp, if not a bit saturated, during a media round of golf Tuesday.
The greens, often the teeth of the old Donald Ross designs, were rolling true and quick, and only will be slicker for the pros. The rough isn't overly long, but it's no picnic.
At about 7,300 yards, it'll play about average for a PGA Tour course, and actually on the shorter side when you consider the PGA Tour decided to keep it a par 72. The Travelers Championship, played in Connecticut the week before the Rocket Mortgage Classic, plays about the same length but is only a par 70.
When word first started circulating last year amid Detroit News reports that the PGA Tour was coming to DGC, some in the golf community scoffed, suggesting the course would be too easy for the PGA Tour pros. Dignitaries on hand Tuesday weren't so sure, and besides, if that was the case, so be it. Fans love watching the pros make birdies, and the pros love making birdies.
"The excitement level is just off the charts," said Andy Glassberg, president of Detroit Golf Club, the only golf course in Detroit that was considered to host this tournament. "It was not much more than a year ago that we got the phone call asking us if we would be willing to participate, and we immediately jumped on this opportunity.
"We're just thrilled to be a part of all that."
The history of Detroit is rich, and same with the club, initially founded in 1899 as a six-hole farmland playground, with dues of $10 a year. It expanded to nine holes in 1900, and then its current configuration in 1916.
It'll be the oldest course in rotation on the PGA Tour, with its legendary Ross layout, and its gorgeous clubhouse, designed by the legendary Albert Kahn. Former head pros include Alec Ross, Donald's brother who won a U.S. Open; Walter Burkemo, who won a PGA Championship; and Horton Smith, who won the inaugural Masters in 1934.
The Rocket Mortgage Classic is no major, to be sure, but it's a major deal for Detroit — more than 50 percent of contractors for services preparing for the club to host the tournament are from Detroit, the initial goal. Twenty-five percent have diversity owners.
The tournament also has seven main charities who stand to benefit greatly from the proceeds, including the Detroit Children's Fund, Midnight Golf, The First Tee of Greater Detroit, the Greater Palmer Park Community and Detroit Golf Club Caddie Scholarship. In addition, the tournament founded Birdies for Charity, allowing any other charity in the area to get in on the benefits via consumer pledges (see why they're not afraid to give up too many birdies). More than 150 local charities have signed up.
"When we got involved in the PGA many years ago, that was important to us," said Farner, noting Quicken Loans long ago founded "Shots for Heroes," which over the years has raised more than $1 million for veterans groups.
As for the tournament itself, organizers are expecting a raucous event — a darn good party, albeit perhaps a little more family friendly than what they had at the old Buick Open all those years ago.
Many tournaments have a signature hole, but the Rocket Mortgage Classic is going bigger, hoping it has found a signature stretch — Nos. 14-16, which will be the epicenter for the fan experience, with a par 5, a par 3 and a par 4 all viewable from one area of the stands, without barely having to turn your neck. It's dubbed "Area 3-1-3" as a tribute to Detroit, and to remind pros that if they go 3-1-3 on the three holes over the course of the four days — that's eagle, ace, birdie, so good luck with that — they'll get to decide which charity gets half of the $313,000 payout.
"It'll be a ton of fun," Langwell said.
Especially if all those seats are packed, particularly on Saturday and Sunday. And ticket sales, so far, are brisk — they went on sale March 13, or 3-13 (branding!) — especially at the VIP and hospitality levels. The members, not always fans of their club being disrupted for weeks at a time, seem mostly pleased.
Really, it's exactly what Farner and Gilbert envisioned all those years ago when they first started laying the groundwork for this day — once a dream, soon a big, fat reality.
It wasn't lost on anybody that Gilbert wasn't in attendance Tuesday, though he wasn't ever scheduled to attend. He suffered a stroke Sunday, and remains hospitalized.
"He thinks about the mission that we're on and what are the different events that we can bring to the city," Farner said of Gilbert, adding it's too early to know if Gilbert will be able to attend tournament festivities late next month. "He has a great passion for this event in particular what it means for the city of Detroit.
"I know that he'll be excited to watch it all take place in the next few weeks."
Rocket Mortgage Classic
When: June 27-30
Where: Detroit Golf Club
TV: Golf Channel, CBS
Purse: $7.3 million