Here's who should get a 'Wonka Golden Ticket' into the Rocket Mortgage Classic
Detroit — There will be 156 golfers competing in the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Xander Schauffele among them. There's an increasing belief Jordan Spieth will be there, too.
And, of course, tournament organizers continue to hold out hope Tiger Woods, the 15-time major winner and reigning Masters champ, will grace Detroit Golf Club with his presence, too.
"We're hopeful," said Jason Langwell, executive director of the PGA Tour's first-ever tournament in Detroit. "We'd love for you to come defend your state title."
Woods has won three times on tour in Michigan, winning three Buick Opens, the longtime stop in suburban Flint which last was played in 2009 (a Woods victory).
The lion's share of the field to tee it up June 27-30 will be made up of touring pros, including at least three of the world's top-10-ranked players.
But at the back end of the field, things will be rounded out with some lesser-known yet important names.
For starters, there are qualifiers. First, there's a pre-qualifier, set for TPC of Michigan in Dearborn on Wednesday, June 19. Players can plunk down $200 to participate, with the top 25 and ties advancing to the Monday qualifier. The Monday qualifier (another $200) is a staple for PGA Tour events, and for the Rocket Mortgage Classic, it will be June 24 at The Orchards Golf Club in Washington Townshop. The top four there will make the tournament.
The Monday qualifiers are designed for those on the fringes of PGA Tour and Web.com Tour status as an avenue to work their way into the big tournaments, and perhaps experience a breakthrough moment.
Then there are the sponsors exemptions.
Each PGA Tour tournament gets up to eight of these spots, which essentially are the equivalent of a Wonka Golden Ticket.
While they are called "sponsors" exemptions, no, the top-shelf brass at Quicken Loans isn't sitting in a room pouring over names, wondering whether Gary from accounting or Anthony from the mail room deserves a shot. It's essentially the tournament director's decision, which in the Rocket Mortgage Classic's case will fall in Langwell's hands.
There are some rules, or more accurately guidelines, in place with sponsors exemptions.
First, half of the eight have to go to players with some sort of touring status, whether on the PGA Tour or the Web.com Tour, which essentially is the PGA Tour's farm system.
But the other four, they're totally dealer's choice — and tournament organizers can approach those decisions many different ways.
Many tournament organizers choose to go the easy route, for immediate ticket sales. It's why, for instance, John Daly always used to be at the front of most lines when it came to sponsors exemptions. He often wasn't consistent enough to keep permanent touring status, but he was so popular with fans — he smokes and chugs Diet Coke, just like me! — that tournaments wanted him, bad.
Then there's the longer-term approach, extending invitations to some of the elite young players in the world, as a way of earning the equivalent of political capital — available for tapping into years down the road, when convenient.
An example here is the PGA Tour's John Deere Classic, never a big tournament for the big names. That tournament gave a young Spieth a sponsors exemption years ago, and that's paid off big-time as Spieth, grateful for that invitation as a youngster, has become one of the world's best sticks, and a three-time major winner. Spieth often returns to the tournament (and usually is the tournament's biggest name), like he did in 2015, despite the John Deere being the week before the British Open. That year, by the way, Spieth defeated Lake Orion's Tom Gillis in a playoff, denying Gillis his first PGA Tour victory.
And there's one other approach: Go local with the sponsors exemptions, because local folks have lots of friends and family, and those friends and family typically don't live far away — and they will buy tickets in bulks. This should be the anticipated route for the Rocket Mortgage Classic, given its significant local branding — "Area 3-1-3" on the course. Detroit's not coming back, it is back! Etc.
With the local theory in mind, here's four we would recommend to Langwell and company as they sort through the heaps of sponsors exemptions requests.
►Nick Carlson: He burst onto the golf scene in the summer of 2016, when he stormed his way into the U.S. Amateur semifinals at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township. He began that week ranked in the 2,000s among world amateurs, and became the feel-good story of the week. He just recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and is embarking on his professional career.
►Ben Cook: The Ferris State alumnus already should be in the Rocket Mortgage Classic field, as the real champion of last summer's Michigan PGA Championship (an obscure rule made him ineligible to actually take home the trophy, though he did at least get to collect the first-place check). He's coming off a respectable showing at the PGA Championship earlier this month.
►Alex Scott: He's probably the best collegiate golfer in Michigan, and is getting it done in Michigan. Scott is graduating and turning pro, and this would be a nice springboard for his career. He was a two-time GLIAC golfer of the year at Grand Valley State, made a U.S. Amateur, won last year's Michigan Tournament of Champions, and just finished sixth at this year's NCAA Championships earlier this month.
►Kyle Mueller: Another UM golfer. In fact, he's probably the most decorated golfer in the history of Wolverines golf — and it's a darn rich history. He graduated last year, and is trying to make it on the mini-tours and work his way up. Mueller has played in three U.S. Amateurs, and one U.S. Open.
►Evan Bowser: The Oakland alumnus and Dearborn native has status on Canada's Mackenzie Tour, and he also won the Horton Smith Invitational at Detroit Golf Club in 2016. That performance — he won by three strokes — can't easily be ignored.
►Josh Gibson: Another local collegiate standout, he plays at Hope, for the second consecutive year he won the Division III Jack Nicklaus National Player of the Year Award. Gibson will be presented the award by Nicklaus at this week's Memorial.
►Ryan Brehm: The Mount Pleasant native and Michigan State alumnus is a three-time Michigan Open champion and held a PGA Tour card for the 2017 season. He's trying to get back, and is having a fine season on the Web.com Tour, with two top-10s.
►Jake Kneen: He starred at Oakland University, where he was the 2018 Horizon League player of the year, and he toothe Michigan Open last year.
►Willie Mack III: He was an all-state golfer in high school in Grand Blanc and went on to win a Michigan Amateur, before taking his game to the grind that is the mini-tours.
►Gillis: An obvious choice, given his long tenure on the PGA Tour, and now on the Champions Tour. But Gillis, despite a love of playing in front of friends and family, probably couldn't accept. The U.S. Senior Open, a major, is the same four days.
►Tom Werkmeister: One of the most storied amateurs in Michigan history, he traded in that status to turn pro when he hit 50 to try to make it on the Champions Tour. He, too, would turn it down, since the Grandville native has qualified for the U.S. Senior Open.
Rocket Mortgage Classic
When: June 27-30
Where: Detroit Golf Club
TV: Golf Channel, CBS
Purse: $7.3 million