'A bummer': Golf fans lament missing out on 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The PGA Tour gets back in the swing of things this week.

But the fans will have to take a mulligan.

Golf's biggest circuit returns to action at the Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, the first PGA Tour tournament since the COVID-19 pandemic cut short The Players Championship in mid-March. The PGA Tour plans for its first five tournaments to be played without fans, including Detroit's Rocket Mortgage Classic from July 2-5.

Golf fans enjoy the view from above the 14th green at the 2019 Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Last year's inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club drew tens of thousands of fans throughout the week — the PGA Tour doesn't release specific crowd estimates — and earned nearly unanimous rave reviews as major pro golf came to the city of Detroit for the first time.

"They could've used a couple more beer stations. You know me, I like to drink," Shannon Keast Clemmons, from Novi, said with a chuckle. "But honestly, I thought they did a great job for their first year. It was organized very well. The course laid out great. It was easy to navigate. 

"We're gonna miss it."

The Rocket Mortgage Classic will be the first major sporting event in Metro Detroit since the coronavirus outbreak shut down sports. And it will be the only sporting event for a while, with the Red Wings and Pistons done for the season, and the Tigers stuck in limbo as Major League Baseball and the players association attempt to come to a financial resolution that will allow them to start the 2020 season.

The Detroit Grand Prix, IndyCar's signature race on Belle Isle, was canceled, originally scheduled to take place Memorial Day weekend — opposite the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

The PGA Tour decided to keep the RMC on the schedule, albeit pushed back to July 4 weekend. The PGA Tour has canceled 10 other tournaments, plus the British Open is not being played this year.

So Detroit gets to stay on the schedule, albeit with no fans. Only players, caddies, Tour personnel, TV production staff and select media will be allowed on the grounds at Detroit Golf Club. Rocket Mortgage Classic officials have promised a stellar made-for-TV presentation, but for many, it simply won't be the same.

"Seeing them live gives you such a better appreciation of how good they are and the skills they possess," said Doug Todd, 40, from Riverview, who attended last year, and was planning on going again this year. "TV does a good job of showing the shots, but seeing the swings and shot-making up close is such a fun experience. Plus, you get to see things live that TV doesn't show — club decisions, player interactions between shots, etc. I'll definitely miss all of that after seeing it live last summer."

Last year, Rocket Mortgage Classic featured a number of fan-friendly events that, for some, proved far more memorable than the actual tournament, which was won by Nate Lashley in runaway fashion.

Trenton's Brandon Dylenski with wife Liz, posing with the Rocket Mortgage Classic trophy in 2019.

Detroit Golf Club held a junior clinic on Monday during tournament week; on Tuesday, there was a celebrity shootout on the three-hole stretch known as Area 3-1-3, featuring Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, Red Wings star Dylan Larkin and musician Kid Rock; and Wednesday, there was a pro-am, featuring some of the same celebrities, and some more. All week, there were perks for juniors and veterans, including free hair cuts for veterans and active service members.

There were plans for even more fan-friendly activities in 2020, though that's a wash now, on hold until 2021.

Then, of course, there was the golf itself, which featured such names as Fowler, Johnson, Watson, Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed and other draws. Ollie Schniederjans made a hole-in-one at the fifth hole Friday.

"We saw Patrick Reed on the par 3, Hideki Matsuyama's bunker shot on 15. And the most important player of the tournament, Nate Lashley. My friend was a big fan of his story and really wanted to follow him for a bit, so we did that," said Ryan Dykas, 25, from Washington Township. "The experience was so fun and my friends and I still bring up this experience.

"It's a bummer we won't be able to relive it again this year."

The lack of ticket sales is expected to cost the Rocket Mortgage Classic several million dollars, which will trickle down to a loss of money for several local charities — though tournament officials have vowed to still donate to several Detroit causes that emerged as critical amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including a pledge to provide every Detroit resident with access to the Internet, technology and digital literacy training by 2025.

Fans who already bought tickets to the Rocket Mortgage Classic were given options: They could donate the money from their tickets to the charitable causes, they could donate half and get half back, they could receive a full refund, or they could put their purchase toward tickets for 2021.

Brandon Dylenski, 32, from Trenton went in 2019, for his first live golf tournament. 

"And it was something I wanted to do every year. I can't wait until the next," said Dylenski, who went with wife Liz. "My wife is an employee at Quicken and is volunteering at the upcoming event, so I am very jealous she gets to go again this year."

Most reviews from 2019 were positive, particularly the Area 3-1-3, the signature stretch of the course, which was comprised of the par-5 14th hole, the short par-3 15th and the par-4 16th. The par-3 15th, tournament officials hoped, would become one of the rowdiest holes on tour, though with more blue-collar hospitality suites there, that never materialized. They had planned for more general-public seating this year.

Parking was a bit of a complaint, with the shuttle from the State Fairgrounds, though many fans acknowledged that went relatively smooth, particularly as the week went along.

The up-close views of the golf, given Detroit Golf Club is an old-style course and the fact tournament officials cautiously limited ticket sales (leading to sellouts on the weekend), were universally a hit, particularly during practice rounds and at the practice green, when players were laid back and accessible.

"We walked to the practice putting area and couldn’t believe how close and how nice most of the Tour players were and would stop and talk and actually acknowledge fans," said Steve Hubbard, 36, of Lansing.

Shannon Keast Clemmons with husband Jeffery at last year's Rocket Mortgage Classic.

The extremely low scores — Lashley won at 26 under par, and 45 players finished at least 10 under par — received mixed reviews. Hardcore golf fans found Detroit Golf Club too easy, but tournament officials maintain most fans want to see birdies, and lots of them (that said, longer rough is planned for this year).

The field, itself, was considered average or slightly above, though certainly not bad for the first year.

Fowler, the unofficial tournament host as a Rocket Mortgage pitchman, was the biggest hit of the week, and drew the biggest crowds. Fowler thrilled during the celebrity shootout, then wowed a big following on the first day of the tournament when he dunked a 122-yard wedge for eagle at the par-5 17th hole. He signed thousands of autographs throughout the week.

Phil Mickelson, the second-biggest fan favorite on the PGA Tour behind Tiger Woods, could've lightened some of Fowler's load, given his commitment to playing this year. Tournament director Jason Langwell said players who took part last year were spreading the word that Detroit was a must-play venue, and he still hopes for some bigger announcements in the coming weeks.

That'd be a boon for the event moving forward, but a bummer for fans who can't go in 2020. They'll settle for the Golf Channel and CBS.

"Thursday, I followed Rickie Fowler most of the game," said Clemmons, 48, who attended four days last year, including three tournament days, with husband Jeffery, 54. "It got pretty crowded, but it wasn't bad. Friday, we walked around a lot, looked at a lot of the different players. And Saturday, my parents came in so we sat at No. 9, it was shaded, it had a drinks stand there, and food. That was really nice to watch all the players come through. We also sat in the stands at Area 3-1-3.

"This year, we actually bought suite tickets for Saturday.

"But that went out the window."


Twitter: @tonypaul1984