Paul: Series of unfortunate events costs Rocket Mortgage Classic many of the bigger names in golf
Detroit — For the Rocket Mortgage Classic, it was a case of good news-bad news, bad news, bad news.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the PGA Tour could've pulled the plug on the second annual tournament at Detroit Golf Club, but after lengthy discussions, they decided it was worth preserving for 2020, to avoid stunting the momentum it had gained from the inaugural showing in 2019.
That was the good news. Very good news, indeed, as the PGA Tour tournament is set to be the first major sporting event held in Michigan since the Pistons and Red Wings were still play in mid-March.
The bad news, however, was the tournament being pushed back from its prime spot in late May to early July, which made it the fourth stop on the PGA Tour's restart. Add in the cancellation of the John Deere Classic, which led to the creation of a doubleheader in Ohio following the Rocket Mortgage Classic, and it was clear the strength of the field in Detroit wasn't going to be what tournament officials had previously hoped.
At the PGA Tour's first tournament back, at Colonial, 16 of the top 20 players in the world played. At the second stop, at Hilton Head, the top five in the world played. At the third stop, this week in Connecticut, the top seven players in the world had committed — though only five teed it up, with Brooks Koepka and Webb Simpson pulled out for precautionary reasons, after Koepka's caddie tested positive for COVID-19, and a family member of Simpson's tested positive.
Simpson, a former U.S. Open champion, is feeling more comfortable, and committed to Detroit on Friday, at No. 5 in the world making him the highest-ranked player in the field. The next-highest-ranked player in the Rocket Mortgage Classic's field is No. 7 Patrick Reed, with Bryson DeChambeau next at No. 11. In all, 18 of the top 50 committed ahead of Friday night's deadline, including another late addition, Hideki Matsuyama.
The 156-player field is almost entirely set, with three more spots left to be accounted for — one exemption and two from Monday's qualifier at Oakland University's Katke course.
Rocket Mortgage Classic tournament officials still are doing their best to pump up the field, which isn't exactly name-less. There's former world No. 1 Jason Day, Tony Finau, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Matthew Wolff and Simpson, but the big, big names are staying away — and even a couple previous commitments weren't on the final-field list Friday, including Cameron Smith and Davis Love III.
"I think it all comes out in a wash," said Jason Langwell, executive director of the Rocket Mortgage Classic. "There are lot of fluctuations.
"We want the best field. We're going to have a great field."
It's just not the field it could've been.
For starters, the tournament lost Phil Mickelson, still the second-biggest name in golf behind some guy named Tiger Woods. When the John Deere canceled the week after the Rocket Mortgage Classic, the PGA Tour rushed to add another tournament in its slot — and its solution was to add another tournament at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. That gave the tournament back-to-back tournaments, with the second being Jack Nicklaus' star-studded Memorial, which always was going to draw the best of the best.
The new Ohio tournament, though, is sponsored by Workday, for whom Mickelson is a pitchman, so he had to scrap his plans for Detroit.
Others figured to take a pass on Detroit, too, given the appeal of getting to spend consecutive weeks in one location, in Ohio. The PGA Tour is a vagabond business, and the idea of getting to unpack for a couple of weeks is no small thing, especially for those players traveling with spouses and/or children. That scenario allowed for some quality time, at least away from the course, where spouses and kids aren't allowed now, given the stricter health and safety protocols, particularly amid the rash of positive tests, including two caddies and three players.
Dustin Johnson, who played the Rocket last year, had been expected to return to Detroit, until the altered schedule.
About that altered schedule, keeping the Rocket on the schedule at all was huge, but it got a bit unlucky when it was the fourth tournament out of the restart gate. Players were itching to get back into the swing of things, so they jammed the entry lists for each of the first three tournaments, making Detroit an appealing spot on the schedule to take a break. John Deere would've been a more opportune week off for some.
Another twist that didn't help the Detroit folks: The major schedule was completely disassembled, with the British Open scrapped, and the PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Masters pushed way back. On the original schedule, the Rocket would've served as an ideal spot for players to gear up for the U.S. Open, particularly for that guy named Tiger. Not anymore.
It's especially too bad, given Detroit, the Blackest city in the country, would've been the perfect stage for the game's best players to play and use their megaphone, given all the racial unrest in the United States — a point brilliantly made this week by The Athletic's Brendan Quinn.
If there's a positive, according to Langwell, who in the spring before the shutdown was bopping around the country to recruit, it's that players are at least listening to the pitch and strongly considering Detroit, given some of the positive reviews they've heard from last year — namely the hospitality afforded by the tournament officials, and the downtown Detroit accommodations.
"Even if we don't up this year with the player," said Langwell, "it puts you on the radar and in a better position for next year. They've at least gone through the process of giving you a good look.
"So there's a silver lining."
There's also this silver lining: If the Rocket Mortgage Classic folks had to choose whether to have a starry field this year or next, they'd privately tell you next would be best — given they can sell tickets for 2021 — even though the tournament has impressively pledged to at least match and possibly exceed charitable giving from 2019.
This year's tournament, set for next Thursday through Sunday, will be the PGA Tour's fourth of five to be held without fans in attendance.
Fans are tentatively scheduled to return to the PGA Tour later in July at the Memorial, where all the big names are sure to be out again — no doubt leaving Detroit officials to ponder what could've been.
And, more importantly, what hopefully will be — in 2021.
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 COVID-19 precautions.