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'It was a thrill': Tom Izzo, other celebrities tee it up with pros at Detroit Golf Club

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Detroit – Bubba, Rickie and D.J. are the draw most weeks on the PGA Tour, but on Tuesday at the Detroit Golf Club, three of the game’s biggest stars were just guys out having some fun on the course.

It was the first truly busy day at the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic, and the highlight of the day was the Area 313 Celebrity Challenge that benefited the Children’s Foundation, which honors children who have overcome major obstacles in their young lives.

Paige Spiranac drives off the 15th tee during the Area 313 Celebrity Challenge at the Detroit Golf Club.

Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson, three of the best golfers in the world, led three four-player teams in a unique scramble event on Nos. 14-16, a three-hole stretch that has been described as the epicenter of the tournament, with stadium seating and vantage points to see parts of all three holes at once.

The pros, however, were far from the only stars. Kid Rock was joined by Detroit Red Wing Justin Abdlekader and pro golfer and Golf Channel host Blair O’Neal on Fowler’s team. Watson led a team that included Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard and female World Long Drive champion Troy Mullins. Johnson’s team included Detroit native and Super Bowl champion Jerome Bettis, Red Wing Dylan Larkin and pro golfer Paige Spiranac.

“It was fun out there with those guys,” Izzo said. “I’m glad I didn’t maim anybody or top the ball and I wasn’t playing my own ball, so I could go up there and foot wedge it and be up with the rest of them.”

It didn’t take long for the fun to begin with the groups all playing together for each hole.

From Kid Rock stroking Fowler’s long hair on the first tee to Bettis talking smack after a huge drive down the middle of No. 14 – the first hole the groups played – the name of the game was having fun, and there was plenty of that.

MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo tries a little body English on his putt on the 15th green.

After Mullins hooked her first drive into the trees, Izzo told her that wasn’t a good sign for Team Watson.

“She was my hero because this was gonna be exciting for my players that all knew I was playing with her today,” Izzo said. “Then she hit that first one bad and I said, ‘Man, we have to play my ball over yours, that’s not good.’ But she was great and the people I played with were great.”

It was all part of the event that unofficially kicked off tournament week, something those playing in the event couldn’t stop talking about.

“It’s huge,” Howard said. “To have this event here, especially at my home course – DGC where I belong – is special. To be able to be inside the city limits of Detroit, it’s huge. It's great for city. This city has treated myself and my family so well, so to see Detroit get this event, we deserve it.”

It has been a long time coming. PGA Tour golf has been absent from the state since the Buick Open ended its run at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc in 2009. And the PGA Tour has never played in Detroit.

But thanks to the determination of Dan Gilbert and the folks at Quicken Loans, the vision they had years ago has come to life at one of the most storied golf courses in the state. PGA Tour golf is back, and the excitement has come with it.

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“It’s unbelievable talking to the guys and how excited they are to be here,” Abdelkader said. “It’s spreading the game of golf and getting an event back here in Michigan I think is important. But having it here in Detroit is something special and part of the whole comeback of the city and the area.”

Ticket sales have proven that fans are ready for the game to be back. Grounds tickets for both Saturday and Sunday have sold out, along with all the corporate suites.

But the early feedback from the players has been positive, as well.

“Yeah, it's unbelievable,” Watson said. “Gosh, what the team has done, what they've done to the city, what they've tried to create here in bringing a golf tournament to Detroit, what a special event. I'm honored to be here and be a part of this at a golf course -- I played the back nine today. The golf course is in good shape. Looking forward to it.

“But yeah, the event itself, the city, what sports means to this city and what it's done for this city, it's unbelievable. It’s just one more thing under their belt of sports.”

None of the teams pulled off the 3-1-3 feat – an eagle 3 on the par-5 14th, a hole in one on the par-3 15th and a birdie 3 on the par-4 16th – but there was still a winner, and a championship belt. That went to Johnson’s team, probably fitting since Johnson is the No. 2-ranked player on the world and Bettis proved he is nearly is good at hitting a golf ball as scoring touchdowns.

But there were no losers on this day. Money was raised for charity, people had fun, and a tournament many believe can be the next big thing in Detroit’s rebirth took its first steps.

“It was a thrill to be here,” Izzo said. “It was nerve-racking I didn’t know how many people would be here. I saw those crowds and thought, ‘Oh geez.’ It went from excitement to nervousness. It’s worse than the Final Four. 

“But there were a lot of Spartan fans and they were great, everyone was great. This is one time it doesn’t matter what school you’re from because everyone knows what this is for.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau