Detroit – If they left a complaint box in the locker room at Detroit Golf Club this past week, there’s a chance that box might have still been empty by Sunday afternoon.
The inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic wrapped up with Nate Lashley cruising to his first career victory, winning by six shots over 2017 U.S. Amateur champion Doc Redman.
Lashley’s win provided one heck of a story considering the path he took to get to this point. From overcoming the death of his parents and girlfriend in a plane crash as a college student to fighting his way through the mini-tours, giving up golf for a short time and ultimately breaking through with a near-record performance the past four days, it was a feel-good story of redemption fitting for the city the tournament was being played in for the first time.
“Being in here right now is a dream,” Lashley said. “I’m happy to be there in Detroit. I love the place and I’m looking forward to coming back.
“Nothing has quite sunk in. The fans were absolutely great, especially today. They were rooting me on and it was great having them on my side. They made me feel like I wasn’t out there on my own and I’m thankful how great they were to me today.”
As heart-warming as Lashley’s win was, it was nearly overshadowed by tournament organizers and PGA Tour officials beaming over how the first-time event went off.
Player after player gushed about the event throughout the week, and while Rocket Mortgage brand ambassador Rickie Fowler would have liked to play a bit better than 9-under, 16 shots off the lead, he said the feedback was nothing but positive.
“I think a big part of this week (was), the players that were here, I think the appreciation that the fans were showing,” Fowler said. “I think players talking about this event and going forward, I feel like everyone felt very welcomed here. The fans were super energetic, but it wasn't like they were out there ripping on guys or taking them down. They enjoyed seeing good golf.
"I think this golf course is great for that. You drive the ball well, you can make a lot of birdies out here. So it's not a golf course that's just going to -- you know, it's not a grind. Obviously if you don't drive it well, it's going to be a little bit of a struggle, but it's a fun golf course to play. Like I said, it allows for that offense.
“Then on top of that, the fans, I think that was a big part of it. Hearing a lot of the kind of positive vibes from players, the feelings that they got from the fans this week.”
The fan support was clear even early in the week as big crowds showed up for practice rounds and the Wednesday pro-am. They continued to grow late in the week and a sold-out crowd jammed the 100-year-old course over the weekend.
It was that turnout that opened eyes of Tour officials.
“Michigan is such a great golfing state and the enthusiasm here is absolutely incredible,” said Mark Russell, vice president for rules and competition at the PGA Tour. “You can judge that just by the crowds. I think it’s been a tremendous success. The players like these old-style venues and I think it’s been great.”
Tournaments don’t release attendance numbers these days, but when they did, somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 was typical in similar markets, tournament executive director Jason Langwell said.
“We think we're gonna operate on the high end of that range,” he said. “I think we'll continue to see by the time we're done with the week, we'll not only operate on the high end of that bench mark, we may set a new one.”
What the fans were treated to was a shootout, one that had the cynics chirping about too many birdies being bad for the event while organizers and players welcomed the reprieve just two weeks after the U.S. Open and three weeks before another major test at the British Open.
“Everybody talks about the low scores but ask some of the guys that missed the cut how easy it was,” Russell said. “Some of the best players in the world and there were so many guys that shot over par. People just look at the guy leading the golf tournament. You get 156 of these guys together, 10 of them are gonna play good.”
It’s true, there were plenty of big names that didn’t make the weekend. World No. 2 Dustin Johnson, U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson were among them.
But the scores were low, and Billy Horschel, who shot 64 on Sunday, said he wouldn’t mind it getting a little tougher when the players return next year.
“There’s a lot of excitement from the fans,” said Horschel, the 2014 FedEx Cup champion. “They’re excited the PGA Tour is back here in Detroit, and I think it’s only gonna grow from here. And it’s always exciting when you see a lot of birdies, as well.
“The course is awesome. I would say they may make it tougher hopefully going forward. That would be my recommendation to the PGA Tour, maybe try and tweak it and make it a little tougher. But it’s still a course where if you are on your game and driving it well you can go low.”
Petoskey's Joey Garber shot a final-round 69 and finished tied for 29th at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He spoke with The News on Sunday. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
The fact the Donald Ross course yielded 1,895 birdies for the week didn’t bother most players, though. In fact, playing the old venue was a big draw for many of the players.
“That's the whole reason why I showed up this week,” said Brandt Snedeker, who shot 7-under 65 in the third round. “When I saw the golf course we were playing and what Quicken Loans is doing, Rocket Mortgage is doing for the City of Detroit, I knew I wanted to be up here.”
That sort of buzz was clear throughout the week and will be something those that played here this week will tell their colleagues who chose not to show up this week.
The event has the benefit of a $7.3 million purse and a prime spot in the schedule, two weeks after the U.S. Open and three before the British Open. This year, that generated a field of 11 of the top 50 players in the world. Not bad, but not outstanding.
That might change moving forward.
“I couldn't believe the amount of support,” Snedeker said. “Normally these things take a few years to really get their stronghold going, but I've been thanked by more fans this week for coming to play golf, which just blew me away. You know, it's like this is what I do, and I love being up here.
“There'll be a lot of guys asking. We always ask on first-year events the guys who played, ‘What did you think, how's the golf course, what's the setup like, was it fun?’ They're going to get a lot of positive reviews from this week.”