Paul: Rocket Mortgage Classic's success bodes well for landing more stars in 2020

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Bubba Watson was one of the biggest names at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, but he didn't survive the cut.

Detroit — There are precisely three golfers who are absolutely locked in for next year's Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit.

There's Nate Lashley, of course. He won the first-year PGA Tour tournament, and will return to defend his championship. He'd never been to Detroit before this past week, but after all that, he might just run for mayor.

Then there's Brian Stuard, the longtime PGA Tour member, Jackson native and Oakland University alum. He finished tied for fifth in the RMC, though he had so much fun playing in front of more than 450 friends and family, he'd be back in 2020 even if he'd missed the cut.

And, of course, there's Rickie Fowler, the tournament's ambassador as a Rocket Mortgage pitchman. He was the man-in-demand all week, and embraced his role.

"All in all, a success, very successful week," Fowler said following his final round Sunday. "Looking forward to making Year 2 even better."

Tournament officials are plenty satisfied with the inaugural event, which featured great weather, huge crowds, a sold-out merchandise tent and a whole messload of birdies.

But there is room for improvement on a number of fronts, too — most notably, from the fans' perspective, is putting together a better and bigger-named 156-player field.

It's not that the Rocket Mortgage Classic didn't have some big names. It had world No. 2 Dustin Johnson, reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland (his victory at Pebble Beach was quite a gift to the Detroit tournament's ticket sales) and Bubba Watson, who's won a couple of Masters. All just happened to miss the cut.

But compared to the tournament the week before, the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, and the week after, the 3M Open in Minnesota, there's work to be done. Phil Mickelson played in Connecticut and is playing in Minnesota, and the same with Brooks Koepka and Jason Day. Detroit missed out on Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Bryson DeChambeau, too. Nobody got Tiger Woods, who decided to take time off between majors this season. Rocket Mortgage Classic folks were convinced if Woods did play between the PGA Championship and British Open, he would've definitely played in Detroit, given Dan Gilbert sponsored his Washington D.C. tournament for five years.

But given the overwhelmingly positive postmortems from the past week in Detroit, there are likely to be more big names giving Detroit Golf Club a shot next year. After all, the PGA Tour is a close-knit fraternity, and the guys talk.

"There'll be a lot of guys asking," Brandt Snedeker said. "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.

"We all stayed downtown, had a great time. Unbelievable how much downtown's changed since the last time I was there.

"So there will be a lot of positive things from this week."

The Rocket Mortgage Classic has a lot of things going for it, including its place on the PGA Tour schedule — assuming it stays put, it falls two weeks after the U.S. Open and three weeks before the British Open. PGA Tour pros haven't traditionally been overly fond of playing the week directly after a major or the week directly before a major, so Detroit allows a built-in buffer for a convenient week off.

It's a great time of year in Michigan, typically with the best weather (the four days this year were perfect, probably the best four-day stretch of conditions all year), and the sports scene is rather subdued, assuring big crowds (and players love those) — unlike the Champions Tour's Ally Challenge in Grand Blanc, which, in September, has to compete with college football and the NFL.

Falling the same week as the Detroit-Canada fireworks show is a nice coincidence, too. Several players watched the show downtown Monday, including Fowler.

Then there's the course itself, a Donald Ross old-school gem which is a rarity on Tour. The closest, pros said last week, is Colonial in Texas. Almost everything else is different, and not necessarily for the better.

"I would imagine a lot of guys are going to be raving about this week, because it's just such a great golf course," Stuard said. "The fans have been great, so it's pretty awesome."

Rickie Fowler is already on board for Year 2 of the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Tournament officials, led by executive director Jason Langwell, tried to pull out all the stops, hospitality-wise, to get the best field this year.

They held a gala for the spouses and wives at the Shinola Hotel in Detroit; there were perks for the caddies, including a caddie lounge as well as free dry cleaning (no small thing!); there was a swanky pro-am pairings party; and plenty more behind-the-scenes incentives. Just about everything was first-class, and word should spread that Detroit is worth checking out. Expect even more of a red-carpet rollout next year.

Many pros took a wait-and-see approach this year, given Detroit is a new event, and given the Tour schedule was altered and condensed, with the PGA Championship moving from August to May. That meant every month from March through July, there was one marquee tournament, starting with The Players Championship, then the Masters, then the PGA, then the U.S. Open, then the British Open.

Pros will have a better idea how they want to maneuver their schedules in 2020 and beyond, and Rocket Mortgage Classic folks are optimistic they will benefit. It helps that the PGA Tour also has a rule that players must add a new Tour stop to their schedule every year, unless they have a legend exemption, like Mickelson and Woods.

"First year was a huge success here," said Fowler, who didn't try to strong-arm friends to play in Detroit this year, though he might just make a few more hard sells in the years to come. "Obviously, strength of field is a nice thing to continue to get better, but I feel like as a first-year (tournament) being in Detroit, strength of field was great. We had a lot of good players here, some of the best players in the world.

"Players talking about this event and going forward, I feel like everyone felt very welcomed here."

Twitter: @tonypaul1984