'It's so huge': Big-time pro golf back in Michigan for first time in a decade

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Name a big name in golf. Please. Go ahead. 

Ben Hogan. Tiger Woods. Arnold Palmer. Jack Nicklaus. Gary Player. They've all won a golf tournament in Michigan, whether it be a major, a regular PGA or senior-tour stop, or an amateur event.

A miniature Joe Louis fist is displayed between the front of the clubhouse and the 10th tee on Sunday at Detroit Golf Club as prep work continues for the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

This week, one of the 156 entries into the PGA Tour's inaugural tournament in Detroit, the Rocket Mortgage Classic, will add his name to the esteemed list.

"It's so huge, because of this state's and the Metro Detroit area's golf roots, that extend all the way back to the 19th century," said Lynn Henning, a recently retired Detroit News sportswriter who was editor of PGA Magazine from 1989-94 and a senior writer and editor of Golfweek from 1996-98.

"To see that reclaimed and to see the appetite, the hunger for big-name pro golf in Michigan is not only refreshing, but it's deserved."

The PGA Tour returns to Michigan this week, in one of two inaugural tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule this year — the 3M Classic in suburban Minneapolis, set for next week, is the other  — and it created a heck of a recruiting tug-of-war.

More: Rocket Mortgage Classic sold out for final two rounds

More:Rocket Mortgage Classic field finalized for Detroit Golf Club

The Rocket Mortgage Classic runs Thursday through Sunday, the first PGA Tour event in the city limits of Detroit.

It's the first PGA Tour tournament in Michigan since the old Buick Open, a fan-friendly staple in Flint suburb Grand Blanc, folded in 2009, after Woods won for the third time.

"It's huge," said Jack Berry, a longtime golf writer in Michigan who worked for both the Detroit Free Press and, later, The News. "It's almost like it (golf in Michigan) died." 

In the United States, only Florida and California have more golf courses than Michigan. That's one reason many golf fans were discouraged when Michigan lost the Buick Open —  a staple on the PGA Tour schedule for more than 50 years — due to the poor state of the auto industry 10 years ago.

Since then, the LPGA Tour has returned, first with tournaments in Grand Rapids in Ann Arbor, and then with a new tournament in Midland this July. The Champions Tour, for the 50-and-older crowd, returned last fall, to the same course in Grand Blanc, Warwick Hills, where the PGA Tour used to make birdie after birdie after birdie.

And now, it's the PGA Tour's turn to add to the fun.

"Yeah, it's great fun, it's great excitement," said Vartan Kupelian, a longtime Detroit News golf writer who now writes for PGATour.com.

"They've got a pretty good field, with D.J. (Dustin Johnson), (U.S. Open champion Gary) Woodland, you've got a lot of name players, a lot of players the fans will be able to identify with and recognize.

"You won't be walking around the fairways going, 'Who's that guy?'"

Henning, Berry and Kupelian covered hundreds of golf tournaments in Michigan, big and small.

But they were mostly big, like Nicklaus' win at the Senior U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in 1991.

Nicklaus beat Chi Chi Rodriguez in a playoff.

"Chi Chi was the perfect foil, who said things like, 'I'm a little mouse and he's a big bear, what chance do I have?'" said Kupelian, who figures he's covered 168 major championships, across all tours. "Any time Jack wins, it's historic."

Golf Channel lighting technicians Rasheen Crawley, left, and Tim Juengel set up studio lighting for the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Then there was Player, the third member of the "Big Three," along with Nicklaus and Palmer. The South African won the 1972 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.

Player won by two strokes over Tommy Aaron and Jim Jamieson.

"At the 1972 PGA, Player hit this 9-iron over the willow on 16 to 4 feet," Henning said. "It was an incredible shot. It was, for me, the best of the major moments we've had here, and we've had a few."

Most legendary, at least according to the text books, was Hogan's triumph at the 1951 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, the "monster" Hogan boasted he "brought to its knees." But Nicklaus won here in back-to-back years, the Senior Players in Dearborn in 1990, prior to the Senior U.S. Open in 1991. Palmer, too, won big tournaments in Michigan, among them the 1961 Western Open at Blythefield Country Club in Belmont, where today the LPGA plays the Meijer Classic, and the 1980 U.S. Senior Open.

Woods won the Buick Open three times, including the finale in 2009.

Oh, and there have been Ryder Cups, most notably Team Europe's thrashing of Team USA at Oakland Hills in 2004 — when U.S. captain Hal Sutton thought it was a good idea to team up then-mortal enemies Woods and Phil Mickelson. It didn't go well.

"One guy goes way to the left, and the other guy goes way to the right," said Berry, the 2007 recipient of the PGA Lifetime Achievement Award.

"And they hardly ever met again."

This week, Michigan and the PGA Tour do, indeed, meet again.

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods shown during the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills Country Club.

PGA Tour's Michigan history


U.S. Open

1924: Cyril Walker, at Oakland Hills Country Club, Bloomfield Township

1937: Ralph Guldahl, at Oakland Hills

1951: Ben Hogan, at Oakland Hills

1961: Gene Littler, at Oakland Hills

1985: Andy North, at Oakland Hills

1996: Steve Jones, at Oakland Hills

PGA Championship

1947: Jim Ferrier, at Plum Hollow Country Club, Southfield

1953: Walter Burkemo, at Birmingham Country Club

1955: Doug Ford, at Meadowbrook Country Club, Northville

1972: Gary Player, at Oakland Hills

1979: David Graham, at Oakland Hills

2008: Padraig Harrington, at Oakland Hills

Ryder Cup

2004: Europe d. USA, at Oakland Hills


Buick Open

1958: Billy Casper, at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, Grand Blanc

1959: Art Wall Jr., at Warwick Hills

1960: Mike Souchak, at Warwick Hills

1961: Jack Burke Jr., at Warwick Hills

1962: Bill Collins, at Warwick Hills

1963: Julius Boros, at Warwick Hills

1964: Tony Lema, at Warwick Hills

1965: Tony Lema, at Warwick Hills

1966: Phil Rodgers, at Warwick Hills

1967: Julius Boros, at Warwick Hills

1968: Tom Weiskopf, at Warwick Hills

1969: Dave Hill, at Warwick Hills

1977: Bobby Cole, at Flint Elks Club

1978: Jack Newton, at Warwick Hills

1979: John Fought, at Warwick Hills

1980: Peter Jacobsen, at Warwick Hills

1981: Hale Irwin, at Warwick Hills

1982: Lanny Wadkins, at Warwick Hills

1983: Wayne Levi, at Warwick Hills

1984: Denis Watson, at Warwick Hills

1985: Ken Green, at Warwick Hills

1986: Ben Crenshaw, at Warwick Hills

1987: Robert Wrenn, at Warwick Hills

1988: Scott Verplank, at Warwick Hills

1989: Leonard Thompson, at Warwick Hills

1990: Chip Beck, at Warwick Hills

1991: Brad Faxon, at Warwick Hills

1992: Dan Forsman, at Warwick Hills

1993: Larry Mize, at Warwick Hills

1994: Fred Couples, at Warwick Hills

1995: Woody Austin, at Warwick Hills

1996: Justin Leonard, at Warwick Hills

1997: Vijay Singh, at Warwick Hills

1998: Billy Mayfair, at Warwick Hills

1999: Tom Pernice Jr., at Warwick Hills

2000: Rocco Mediate, at Warwick Hills

2001: Kenny Perry, at Warwick Hills 

2002: Tiger Woods, at Warwick Hills

2003: Jim Furyk, at Warwick Hills

2004: Vijay Singh, at Warwick Hills

2005: Vijay Singh, at Warwick Hills

2006: Tiger Woods, at Warwick Hills

2007: Brian Bateman, at Warwick Hills

2008: Kenny Perry, at Warwick Hills

2009: Tiger Woods, at Warwick Hills

Michigan Golf Classic

1969: Larry Ziegler, at Shenandoah Golf & Country Club, Walled Lake

Western Open

1904: Willie Anderson, at Kent Country Club, Grand Rapids

1911: Robert Simpson, at Kent Country Club

1922: Mike Brady, at Oakland Hills Country Club

1930: Gene Sarazen, at Indianwood Golf & Country Club

1957: Doug Ford, at Plum Hollow Country Club

1958: Doug Sanders, at Red Run Golf Club, Royal Oak

1960: Stan Leonard, at Western Golf & Country Club, Redford

1961: Arnold Palmer, at Blythefield Country Club, Belmont

Motor City Open

1948: Ben Hogan, at Meadowbrook Country Club

1949: Cary Middlecoff and Lloyd Mangrum (co-winners), at Meadowbrook Country Club

1950: Lloyd Mangrum, at Red Run Golf Club

1952: Cary Middlecoff, at Red Run Golf Club

1954: Cary Middlecoff, at Meadowbrook Country Club

1956: Bob Rosburg, at Western Golf & Country Club, Redford

1959: Mike Souchak, at Meadowbrook Country Club

1962: Bruce Crampton, at Knollwood Country Club, West Bloomfield


Twitter: @tonypaul1984