Detroit – The PGA Tour is back, and even though it’s not bringing its biggest draw – Tiger Woods – that hasn’t altered the impact being made on the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.
The inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic begins this week at Detroit Golf Club, the first time the Tour will be played in Michigan since the Buick Open ended its run in Grand Blanc in 2009 and the first time ever within the city of Detroit. That has golf-starved fans and others in the metro area eager to get back on the course. Ticket sales have been brisk with grounds passes for the weekend selling out.
What those fans will see is not only world-class golf, but they’ll take it in at a venue that qualifies as a true gem of Detroit.
It all adds up to one of the biggest weeks of the summer in Metro Detroit, one that would have been even bigger if Woods had opted to play. Still the biggest name in the game, Woods brings big numbers — on the course and on TV.
He opted to take a break until next month’s British Open as he tries to build of the momentum of his win at the Masters in April, the 15th major championship of his career. Tournament organizers held out hope Woods would return to Michigan after being a regular at Warwick Hills, where he won the Buick Open three times in his career.
However, even without Woods, the first-year Rocket Mortgage Classic has the city buzzing.
Yes, the PGA Tour is back, and organizers sense it’s just the start of something special.
As the tournament gets set to tee off, here’s what to keep an eye on.
U.S. Open champ
When Gary Woodland’s name was included a few weeks back in a wave of player commitments, it was a nice get for the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He was a fairly notable player who was ranked among the top 25 in the world and had a handful of PGA Tour victories.
But outside of sometimes being mistaken for Brooks Koepka, it wasn’t like Woodland playing at Detroit Golf Club was going to be that big of a deal. In other words, there weren’t going to be many folks buying tickets to see Woodland.
That’s probably changed.
Woodland shot the best-ever score during a major tournament at Pebble Beach Golf Links, carding a 13-under par to win the U.S. Open, outlasting Koepka, the two-time defending champion, by three shots. In an instant, Woodland was a major champion, and everyone wanted to know as much as they could about the former college basketball player.
His story has been told often in the past week. From his days growing up in Kansas as a three-sport star, to his budding friendship with Amy Bockerstette, the young woman with Down syndrome who Woodland said was his inspiration during the final round of the U.S. Open.
Woodland is now someone people are coming to watch, and he’s teeing it up at Detroit Golf Club as he looks to keep the momentum going into the final major of the season in three weeks at the British Open.
A nice field
It can take many years for events on the PGA Tour to build momentum and recognition, but that doesn’t mean the field for the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic is void of big-time players. In fact, there are seven major champions who will be in the field this week after Woodland won the U.S. Open.
He’s joined by Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion and world No. 2 Dustin Johnson, winner of the 2016 U.S. Open. Bubba Watson (2012, 2014 Masters), Jimmy Walker (2016 PGA Championship) and Jason Dufner (2013 PGA Championship) committed early while 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink came on board last week.
There are plenty of other big names, as well, including Rocket Mortgage pitchman Rickie Fowler, who is the 14th-ranked player in the world. Kevin Kisner (No. 27), Hideki Matsuyama (28) and Cameron Smith (36) will tee it up, as well as former FedEx Cup champions Billy Horschel, ranked 38th in the world, and Brandt Snedeker, ranked No. 44.
The field also includes the world’s top two ranked amateurs in the most recent rankings, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, who both received sponsor exemptions and turned pro last week at the Travelers Championship.
“We love the field we have,” said Jason Langwell, the tournament’s executive director. “We recruited a great field. … We’re feeling pretty good about things right now. To have (Woodland) in field and play here for the first time as he serves as the reigning U.S. Open champion is special, but we’re really pleased.”
Rooting for this local
If anyone is looking to root for the home team in golf, it normally only happens in year-end team events like the Ryder Cup or the Solheim Cup.
This week, though, fans can pull for Brian Stuard, a Jackson native who played collegiately at Oakland University.
“Getting to come to a tournament like this is pretty special,” Stuard said. “Coming from Jackson, Michigan, it’s hard to believe I’ve made it this far, but it’s pretty cool.”
Stuard first earned his Tour card in 2009, the same year the Buick Open ended its run at Warwick Hills. He didn’t play in that event, meaning this is his first chance to play in front of the home crowd as a pro golfer.
“I never got to play in the (Buick Open) and that was always a childhood goal, I guess,” Stuard said. “To get to play in Detroit and the Detroit Golf Club is such a great place. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
Stuard hopes the home cooking gets his game going. The winner of the 2016 Zurich Classic, Stuard has just two top-10 finishes this season, though he’s made the cut in seven straight events.
“This is gonna be a different kind of pressure for me, but I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
It’s tough to manufacture great holes on the PGA Tour. To some extent, some of the most memorable holes in the game are made by the moments that take place on them.
But some are just a lot of fun — think No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale or the island green at No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass. Rocket Mortgage Classic officials are hoping that Nos. 14-16 at Detroit Golf Club have a chance to ignite some of the same excitement — a stretch they’ve described as the “epicenter of activity both inside and outside the ropes.”
They’re calling it Area 313, a nice play on Detroit’s area code. It consists of No. 14, a 543-yard par-5 followed by 160-yard par-3 15th. The run is capped by No. 16, a 450-yard par-4.
With players aiming to go eagle-ace-birdie — a 3-1-3 on the scorecard — and the fans getting up close to the action, the belief is the cluster of holes complete with general admission stadium seating and upgraded hospitality venues will quickly become one of the most popular places to watch golf on the PGA Tour.
“Area 313 has been designed to be a stretch of the golf course unlike anything else on the PGA Tour,” said Langwell. “It is an area where fans can watch the action on three different holes, as some of the world’s best golfers make the difficult decision of whether to gamble on going for the green in two on 14, attacking the flag on 15 and pushing their luck on 16.”
During tournament week, there will be an incentive for the players.
The first to score a 3 on No. 14, a hole-in-one on No. 15, and a 3 on 16 — scoring a 3-1-3 — cumulatively over the four days of tournament play will win $313,000 to be donated to several youth-based local non-profit partners and one charitable group of the golfer’s choice.
“PGA Tour pros are really embracing this fun and unique way to raise money for our local youth organizations,” Langwell said. “We anticipate that there will be golfers who might make a birdie on the 16th hole Thursday, then eagle the 14th on Friday, so they’ll be gunning to ace the 15th over the weekend and be the first to record scores of 3-1-3. The added drama will be fun to watch.”
An added bonus to the stretch of holes was Tuesday’s celebrity challenge.
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, Red Wings star Dylan Larkin and musician Kid Rock highlighted the scramble played with Fowler, Johnson and Watson.
Not only will the tournament showcase Detroit Golf Club, but it will give the city another chance to show off, and the PGA Tour proved it wants to be a part of the city’s resurgence by bringing a tournament within the city limits for the first time.
“One of the reasons that we’re here is because we think we can make a positive difference and make an impact on this area and showcase it to the world,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “We want to help Rocket Mortgage and this area tell its story. That’s the beauty of our platform.”
The Tour has had a similar impact around East Lake Country Club near Atlanta where the Tour Championship is played. The community has been revived over the past 15 years and the Tour has helped lead that revival.
That sort of influence could be repeated around Detroit Golf Club.
“It’s the pride the people have in this city,” Monahan said. “It’s the area and where it is in its life cycle and how it’s resurging and how it wants to continue to push itself. To have a PGA Tour event coming back here after not having one since 2009 I think it’s creating an energy that is palpable.”