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'We're trying to give somebody a show': PGA Tour brings end to Michigan's sports shutdown

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — It's the greatest show on turf. Of course, it helps that it's the only show on turf.

The PGA Tour brings its restart to Detroit Golf Club this week for the second annual Rocket Mortgage Classic, which will look a whole lot different than the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic.

For starters, there will be no fans, no baba booeys, no elevated blood-alcohol levels. That threatens to suck some of the fun out of the tournament.

An aerial view of Detroit Golf Club, which will host the second annual Rocket Mortgage Classic.

But let's all remember this: For the first time in 115 days, there will be a real, live, professional sporting event in Michigan — for the first time since March 10, when, at Little Caesars Arena, the Detroit Red Wings lost to the Carolina Hurricanes, 5-2, apparently sealing the fourth overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft.

And we don't exactly know when there will be another, given the Red Wings and Pistons are done, while the Tigers are supposed to start the season in late July — though COVID-19 has a strange way of keeping everyone from making plans in stone these days.

The PGA Tour, though, is rolling on, Detroit being its fourth weekly stop on its restart. It joins NASCAR and IndyCar in the hunt for the nation's eyeballs.

More: World No. 5 Webb Simpson cleared for RMC; PGA Tour bracing for more positive tests in Detroit

"We're entertainers and we're entertaining on TV, but we're also — the local community will feel us, know that we're here and see that we're here," said Bubba Watson, who'll make his second appearance at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. "We're trying to give somebody a show so they can smile at their TVs and get to do something different.

"Live sports is what we're all about, and hopefully we can put some smiles on faces around the world."

It's desperately needed, of course — more than 120,000 have died of the coronavirus; nearly 40 million Americans lost work because of COVID-19, including more than 2 million in Michigan; and the stark racial divide, with all those protests all over the nation, including more than a dozen in downtown Detroit, hasn't been this evident in 50-plus years — and it's working, with Golf Channel boasting huge ratings, including record numbers for the first tournament back, at Colonial.

Tens of thousands of Metro Detroit golf fans attended the first Rocket Mortgage Classic in 2019, with tournament officials announcing sellouts on the weekend.

This time, the galleries will consist of a smattering of TV crew members, print media, volunteers and other essential staff members.

Detroit Golf Club will host the Rocket Mortgage Classic this week, without fans.

If Rickie Fowler holes out from the fairway on the par-5 17th again, he might get an attaboy from one of his playing partners, but not much more adulation.

That'll be different, though the pros — 156 of them will tee it up at Detroit Golf Club this week — are starting to get used to it.

"You're still playing against the best players in the world," said Fowler, one of 18 golfers in the top 50 in the world ranking who will play this coming week. "But not having fans out there is very different. Not knowing how close your ball is, crowd reactions, making a putt for birdie. It's very quiet.

"It's whatever happens in your group. Try and relax and just go play golf.

"That's what it comes down to, at the end of the day."

More: Golf Channel promo mistakenly says Dustin Johnson will play in Detroit

Some Detroiters, who own homes bordering Detroit Golf Club, could get creative and set up viewing stations in their backyard, as some did at Colonial, and the following week at Hilton Head.

But outside of that, fans won't return to PGA Tour tournaments until the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus' tournament, in Dublin, Ohio, from July 16-19. And even there, crowds are expected to be somewhat limited, and perhaps significantly so, if the COVID-19 situation worsens.

The PGA Tour has had eight positive tests for coronavirus — a mixture of players and caddies — out of thousands of tests administered. Seven players withdrew from this week's Travelers Championship, prompting the PGA Tour to increase the number of tests, starting in Detroit.

"The needle up my nose is the craziest thing," Harold Varner III said. "We're going to do the right thing, we're going to return to golf the right way."

Detroit Golf Club will feature slightly thicker rough and slightly longer par 5s than in 2019.

Said Jackson native and Oakland alum Brian Stuard, who finished tied for fifth in Detroit last year: "It's definitely not a pleasant thing, but in order to be able to play golf tournaments, it's worth it."

For the time being, it is anyway, especially given local corporations have stepped up with a cash infusion, in the wake of lost ticket revenues. That's keeping the purses as rich as they already were, while still allowing for significant donations to local charities. Rocket Mortgage Classic tournament officials have pledged to nearly meet if not exceed last year's $1.1 million charitable giving, shifting this year to a wildly ambitious endeavor to end Detroit's digital divide by 2025.

It all depends, of course, on the players feeling comfortable playing — and for now, they mostly do, as evidenced by the star-studded fields the first three weeks.

The field in Detroit is a little less starry, though not entirely void of big names. There's Fowler, Bryson DeChambeau, Jason Day and world No. 5 Webb Simpson, among others. Still, being the PGA Tour's fourth week out of the gate, it provides players a good week to take off and rest up, ahead of a two-week, two-tournament stop at Muirfield Village in Ohio.

More: Thicker rough, slightly longer par 5s to greet PGA Tour players in Detroit

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, during an impromptu press conference in Connecticut this week, repeatedly has avoided answering if there was a number that would prove a tipping point in the restart. Monahan said he expects to see positive COVID-19 tests every week, including in Detroit.

"It's definitely not as safe as being home in my house quarantining, but we're doing the best we can," said Keegan Bradley, who was a late addition to the Rocket Mortgage Classic field. "Certainly when we're out here, it's a little bit uncomfortable.

"If we had 20 guys test positive, I don't know if we'd be playing."

They're not there yet, so the PGA Tour will keep swinging — while taking advantage of its raised platform to push social causes, like putting names of front-line workers on caddie bibs, or the moment of silence and vacant 8:46 a.m. tee time in memory of George Floyd at Colonial.

Area 313 will be a bit quieter this year for the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club.

At Detroit Golf Club, meanwhile, pros will get a course unlike most they see on Tour — an old-school, Donald Ross layout that relies more on precision off the tee, particularly this year with the thicker rough, and on the approach, given the very tricky greens. It's not a bombers' course, by any means.

Just ask Nate Lashley, who is barely in the top 200 on the PGA Tour in driving distance, but who absolutely torched the field last year, finishing at 25 under par — six shots clear of the runner-up, in earning his first PGA Tour victory. When he made his final putt, he was ranked 353rd in the world. Today, he's 82nd.

Lashley was a heck of a story last year, given his personal journey — in 2004, he lost both his parents and his girlfriend in a plane crash — and more intriguing stories are almost certain to rise up this year, even if fans, for just this one year, have to settle for a seat on their couch rather than the Area 313 grandstands.

More: 'Everybody's gotta be diligent': PGA Tour plays on, but with increased testing starting in Detroit

Hey, it beats nothing — and it certainly beats trying to find something, anything you haven't already seen on Netflix. Three other professional golf tournaments in Michigan, including the Senior PGA Championship and two LPGA Tour tournaments, were canceled for 2020, plus the U.S. Senior Amateur. The PGA Tour canceled 10 tournaments, but decided to save Detroit, even if one of the fan-friendliest events on the Tour in 2019 won't have fans in 2020.

"As a professional, my longest offseason or break I think has been 3½ weeks, so having that 90 days off, I didn't know what to do," said Patrick Reed, who's ranked No. 7 in the world and back for a second time in Detroit. "But it's definitely different when you step up on the first tee and they announce your name and there's no one there, you just hear crickets basically. ... And you get on that kind of birdie run and you make your second or third birdie in a row, you're kind of amped up, you want to throw that fist pump but there's no one there. There's no one to throw the fist pump to, there's no crowds going.

"It's just awesome to be back playing, but at the same time we always love when the fans are there.

"But that time will come."

ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC COMMITMENTS

Rocket Mortgage Classic

When: July 2-5

Where: Detroit Golf Club

Defending champion: Nate Lashley

Notable players: Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, Tyrrell Hatton, Tony Finau, Sungjae Im, Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Kevin Na, Danny Willett, Kevin Kisner, Erik van Rooyen, Christian Bezuidenhout, Bubba Watson, Matt Wallace, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Brandt Snedeker, Jason Day, Steve Stricker, Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh

TV: Thursday, Friday — Golf Channel, 3-6 p.m; Saturday-Sunday — CBS, 3-6 p.m.

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

Merchandise: RocketMortgageClassic.com

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984