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'Disguised opportunity': Very different Rocket Mortgage Classic survives Detroit sports purge

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — This time next week, more than 100 professional golfers will be arriving in town as major sports returns to Michigan for the first time since COVID-19 shut everything down more than three months ago.

But the Rocket Mortgage Classic, the second-year PGA Tour tournament at Detroit Golf Club, is going to look a whole lot different in 2020 than it did in 2019.

There will be no fans allowed on the grounds of Detroit Golf Club, with the PGA Tour's restart going without spectators through the first five tournaments. The Rocket Mortgage Classic is No. 4 in that stretch.

Nate Lashley holds the trophy after winning the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

"Anytime you make changes and adjustments, it's a challenge," Jason Langwell, tournament director for the Rocket Mortgage Classic, told The Detroit News. "But I would tell you we're looking at this as a disguised opportunity.

"What's happened has been awful, and not just for us. But it's caused everybody to have to think different and figure out ways to innovate.

"And we've been able to do that."

For starters, the biggest achievement was getting the tournament to go on at all — which wasn't always a guarantee, as the PGA Tour dissected its schedule from every angle early in the coronavirus shutdown. In total, 10 PGA Tour tournaments were canceled, plus the British Open, which is one of golf season's four majors, but isn't technically sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

But Detroit, despite COVID-19 hitting Michigan and especially Metro Detroit hard in the early weeks of the pandemic, stayed on the schedule, albeit pushed back by about a month.

More: Amid PGA Tour's altered schedule, Rocket Mortgage Classic loses Phil Mickelson

The PGA Tour did Detroit a solid, satisfying longtime PGA Tour sponsor Dan Gilbert, while also trying to maintain the momentum the Rocket Mortgage Classic built in its inaugural year.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic was given the opportunity to take 2020 off, and regroup for 2021, but declined.

"We saw this as an opportunity," Langwell said.

Like with any large gatherings taking place as the pandemic rages on, of course, it also carries some risk, as the PGA Tour learned the hard way Friday when Nick Watney, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, tested positive for the coronavirus and had to withdraw from the RBC Heritage in South Carolina.

The tournament played on — the PGA Tour hasn't provided an approximate number that would be the tipping point for shutting down again — though not without some jolted players. The PGA Tour conducted contract tracing, testing 11 people who were in close proximity to Watney throughout the week. All tested negative.

Watney will be in quarantine for more than a week.

Rickie Fowler will return to the Rocket Mortgage Classic this year but the fans will not.

Most players and caddies playing one week to the next are traveling by private PGA Tour charter, so much of the Rocket Mortgage Classic field will arrive together in town Sunday night. They are scheduled to be tested in Connecticut before being allowed on the plane. The rest of the Rocket Mortgage Classic field will be traveling separately, and each player, caddie and essential tournament staffer will be tested before being allowed on the grounds of Detroit Golf Club. Several hundred tests are expected to be administered.

"It's just something we will have to get used to," said long-time PGA Tour member Brian Stuard, a Jackson native and Oakland University alum who tied for fifth at least year's Rocket Mortgage Classic.

There also will be daily temperature checks and health questionnaires for all participants, which is key, given Watney tested negative upon arrival at Hilton Head, but started experiencing symptoms late in the week. Those daily screenings include 156 golfers and 156 caddies, and essential tournament staff members. If anybody tests positive, they will be moved to a holding room, as the PGA Tour's response plan kicks in.

More: Behind the scenes: Michigan Golf Classic lasted one year, and for good reason

There still will be more than 200 volunteers on site, which is down from more than 2,000 last year, and those volunteers will work full-day shifts to avoid change-out. The media contingent is expected to be between 40 and 50, down from more than 400 credentials issued last year. Interviews will be done from a distance.

Social distancing will be strongly encouraged, post-round handshakes will be discouraged. Players will have their own cart to take to the driving range and around the grounds during practice days, those traditional on-site equipment manufacturer trucks are a thing of the past for now, food will be grab-and-go, and on and on. Players and caddies will be encouraged to be either at the course or their hotel rooms, and nowhere else. Several Detroit restaurants will provide them food delivery.

ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC COMMITMENTS

Langwell and his staff got an up-close look at necessary protocols during a trip last week to Fort Worth, Texas, where the Charles Schwab Challenge kicked off the PGA Tour's restart. Rocket Mortgage Classic officials also held a followup conference call with Charles Schwab Challenge officials, and are expected to do the same with officials from the RBC Heritage and next week's Travelers Championship in Connecticut.

"For us, it was really helpful to go down and see how some of the new processes and procedures went," said Langwell, who spoke to The News at length midday Friday, shortly before Watney tested positive in South Carolina. "It's one thing to have a really strong plan in place, which we do, but it's another thing to go see it in action. ... By the time they get here, we'll have the benefit of the other events having gone through some of the tweaks that have been made from a health and safety standpoint.

"We'll be more informed by the time the guys roll through July 2-5."

The PGA Tour, NASCAR and IndyCar were the first two major professional sports in North America to get going again, with the NHL and NBA planning returns in July — albeit, there are complications on those fronts, given the recent outbreak among NHL players, and given the outbreak in Florida, where the NBA plans to play the remainder of its season and postseason in a bubble at Disney. The NHL plans to play in yet-unannounced hub cities. Major League Baseball, meanwhile, hasn't started its season, and there's no idea if or when it will, given a financial stalemate between owners and players, complicated recently by several COVID-19 cases popping up at multiple teams' spring-training facilities.

The last major pro sporting event to take place in Michigan was March 10, when the Red Wings hosted the Carolina Hurricanes at Little Caesars Arena. The Pistons last played in Detroit on March 7. Dozens of Pistons, Red Wings and Tigers games have been wiped out, as were the IndyCar's races in Detroit on Belle Isle, which were set for late May, the same weekend as the original slot for the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

While two LPGA Tour tournaments and a Champions Tour major were axed from Michigan's sports schedule, the Rocket Mortgage Classic has managed to survive, and now is preparing to take center stage — albeit in a significantly quieter and lonelier arena.

"This will be the new normal," said Langwell, "by the time they arrive in Detroit."

Rocket Mortgage Classic

When: July 2-5

Where: Detroit Golf Club

Defending champion: Nate Lashley

Tickets: None; the event will be held without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic

Merchandise: RocketMortgageClassic.com

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984