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Rocket Mortgage Classic plans longer rough for Detroit Golf Club in 2020, but still fine with birdies galore

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — At the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic, there were 1,895 birdies, 40 eagles and a winning score of 25 under par.

Jason Langwell, the executive director of the PGA Tour's first-ever Detroit stop, would be just fine if those numbers repeated themselves, despite some chirping on social media that Detroit Golf Club proved far too easy for the best golfers on the planet.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club will be played a month earlier than last year.

That said, there are some golf-course changes, however subtle, planned for Year 2 of the tournament, set for May 28-31.

Most notably, the rough is going to be longer in 2020, "a bit longer" than the 3.5 inches in 2019, Langwell said during a recent conversation with The News. The length of the rough was limited in 2019, per PGA Tour protocol for first-year tournaments.

Langwell also said the tournament committee is considering new, potentially trickier hole locations on the already-difficult Donald Ross greens. The standard for Year 1 events is to use all four quadrants of the green — one each round — but now officials might lean toward doubling up on certain sections to spice things up.

"We've looked at the ShotLink data," Langwell said. "It helps to have data points."

But there are no plans to lengthen the golf course from its 7,300 yards, or change the par of 72 by turning some of the reachable par 5s into par 4s.

Langwell and his staff are of the strong belief fans like seeing good shots, love seeing birdies, and will be just fine to see a repeat of all the darts thrown in 2018. After all, despite the narrative at times during Year 1, the Rocket Mortgage Classic was not the easiest scoring tournament on Tour, not even close.

That's not to say tournament officials wouldn't like a big more of a challenge.

But Langwell said he'd prefer Mother Nature, not his grounds crew, toughen up the course. Conditions were practically perfect last year, with next to no wind all four days. If the wind blows even a little more in 2020, which would harden a golf course and make approaches to tiny greens much more difficult, scores will go up on their own.

"There wasn't an ounce of wind all week, nothing," Langwell said. "That's what we heard from a lot of players, 'If we have any wind out there ...'

"We'll continue to try and make the golf course firm and fast."

Nate Lashley, a 37-year-old Nebraska native, won the inaugural tournament, storming the field and finishing 25 under par, six shots better than runner-up Doc Redman. The win, Lashley's first on the PGA Tour, earned him a trip to last week's Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.

Nate Lashley won the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club.

The field featured several big names, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama, Gary Woodland and Bubba Watson among them. 

Langley was pleased with the strength of the field for a first-year event, and already has high hopes it gets even better this year. Fowler, of course, will be back as the de facto tournament host and Rocket Mortgage pitchman. Watson, too, is likely to return, even tweeting as much recently.

The tournament's new place on the calendar, up one month to make room for the every-four-years Olympics, could help matters, too. It's right between majors, two weeks after the PGA Championship and three weeks before the U.S. Open.

It's also the week before a very popular PGA Tour stop, Jack Nicklaus' Memorial, which takes place not far away in suburban Columbus, Ohio. The Rocket Mortgage Classic could prove a popular piggy-back stop for some of the bigger names.

Langwell already has been on the road pitching golf's elite; his first official recruiting trip was at the Tour Championship in Atlanta in late August.

"It was great, No joke, we literally had players coming up to me in the players' dining room and saying, 'Wow,' even those who didn't play," Langwell said of the word-of-mouth takes making the rounds on the PGA Tour.

"Tony Finau came up to me and said, 'I heard you guys killed it in Detroit."

Kevin Kisner told Langwell he loved the hotel, Shinola downtown. Reed told Langwell Detroit was among the best food experiences he's had on Tour. The player commute was a plus, 15 minutes from the players' downtown luxury hotels to the golf course. The players also appreciated the RMC's events for spouses and caddies, Langwell said.

The new date, however, puts the Rocket Mortgage Classic directly up against the IndyCar Grand Prix on Belle Isle. That figured to be a concern, two of Metro Detroit's marquee sporting events battling for fans' almighty entertainment dollar, but Langwell sees it as a positive, and expects synergy between the two — like the RMC bringing drivers out to the course, and IndyCar bringing golfers out to the track to run laps.

"The new date doesn't hurt us," Langwell said. "If we had to pick another date on the schedule, this would be the one."

The tournament is expected to return to its late June date in 2021 and the two years after that, before the Olympics come around again.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic is entering Year 2 of a four-year deal, but there are expectations for that deal to be extended well beyond that.Langwell said they've already signed "seven or eight" more multi-year sponsorship deals than in 2019.

That's because the event, by almost all accounts, was a success, particularly from the attendance standpoint. The tournament sold out Saturday and Sunday, and had among the largest Thursday crowds of any non-major PGA Tour event, Tour officials said. Attendance figures aren't released on Tour, but 30,000 to 40,000 for the week — on a tight golf course without endless areas for fan viewing — is a conservative estimate.

Langwell said he expects more of the same in 2020, and the tournament is tweaking fan-viewing experiences to accommodate. There will be additional public grandstands, including in "Area 3-1-3," the course's signature three-hole stretch on the back nine that was expected to be wild and crazy in 2019, but lacked a bit of that because many of the grandstands in that area were too corporate. (The Coors Light crowd tends to be much rowdier than the what-year-is-this-from crowd.) There will be a double-decker cabana located in "Area 3-1-3." There will be selfie stations.

"Now we know where things can go, and where there's room to put things," he said.

Langwell said there are other plans in the works to appeal to fans, particularly kids, including an enlarged fan zone that will feature activities other than just golf. The junior clinic will return, as will the "Area 3-1-3 Celebrity Challenge," a scramble featuring golfers and state dignitaries taking part in a three-hole scramble on Tuesday.

On the hospitality side, there will be a new complex, the 1899 Club, paying homage to the year Detroit Golf Club was founded. Off the 14th green, golfers will walk up stairs and right through the 1899 Club, before taking the stairs down to the 15th tee.

There also are new ticket options for 2020. Tickets range from $15 to $60, depending on the day, and there are $180 grounds passes. There also will be a $15 Monday-Tuesday combo ticket. Langwell said given that each ticketed adult can bring up to four juniors (15 and younger) for free each day, that $15 could be good for admission for nine fans.

"It's hard to beat that value," he said.

Other initiatives Langwell and Co. are working on for 2020: Better wifi throughout the course, more food and beverage options, and additional merchandise tents — plus additional merchandise. Swag sold out well before the end of the tournament in 2019. The tournament also expects to have alternate-tournament-logo merchandise, a suggestion from a fan that came in to tournament officials via feedback@rmc.com. Tournament officials check that inbox every day, and seriously consider all suggestions.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic again is seeking volunteers — this year, more than 2,100, or about 100 more than last year — and registration opens online at RocketMortgageClassic.com on Tuesday. For less than $100, volunteers get up-close access during tournament week, tournament tickets, and tournament merchandise.

Tournament officials were under the gun to get things ready for the inaugural event, and still were planting flowers and doing some final paint touch-ups Tuesday of tournament week. This year, they expect to be completely ready by Monday morning — the course wasn't even open the Monday of tournament week in 2019 — even though they don't have as much preparation time, given the new tournament date.

The best they can hope for in terms of facility setup is cooperating weather in the spring, much like they got cooperating weather last summer.

"The theme for 2020, 2019 was all about figuring a way to build a strong base, and Year 2 is all about building off that base and making it bigger and better," Langwell said. "That's what the focus is going to be. 

"We want to maintain a real awesome experience, but find a way to dial it up a little bit."

Rocket Mortgage Classic

When: May 28-31

Where: Detroit Golf Club

Defending champion: Nate Lashley

Tickets: Available at RocketMortgageClassic.com. Daily grounds tickets, $15-60; weekly grounds pass, $180; juniors 15 and younger, free.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984