Other PGA Tour tournaments may copy Bubba's well-received Detroit exhibition
Detroit — Did Bubba Watson happen to stumble on something special, and perhaps even long-lasting?
It's too soon to tell, but as many as five executive directors of PGA Tour tournaments reached out this week to the Rocket Mortgage Classic's executive director, Jason Langwell, to ask how Watson, the RMC and others pulled off the hastily organized charity exhibition match that was held Wednesday at Detroit Golf Club.
The match, featuring Watson, Jason Day, Harold Varner III and Wesley Bryan, drew rave reviews from across the country, particularly in social-media circles, for its authenticity. The two-hour, nine-hole event, which aired live on Golf Channel, featured hilarious banter between the foursome, while raising more than $1 million for the tournament's primary charity mission, ending Detroit's digital divide by 2025.
"I get goose bumps just talking about it," Langwell said. "I told Bubba, 'I don't think you realize it, but you hoisted the trophy on Wednesday.'
"'For what you did for the city, the awareness you raised, far exceeded you coming out here and playing.'"
The roots of the exhibition dated to early June, when the PGA Tour was restarting its season at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas. Langwell traveled to the tournament to observe how the restart would go, what was different, what new protocols had to be in place, etc.
While there, he also chatted up several players about possibly playing in Detroit, and also ran into Watson. The two talked about the Rocket Mortgage Classic's "Changing the Course" initiative.
Watson told Langwell he wanted to do something to help — the same Watson who donated $20,000 to First Tee of Detroit in 2019 in the name of Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who had recently suffered a stroke — and that he'd be in touch.
Sure enough, last Sunday, Watson's people called Langwell and pitched the idea of the casual charity exhibition, for Wednesday. Watson pitched it as a "little hit and giggle" match, and wanted it on TV. Langwell knew that would require the PGA Tour's approval, so Watson picked up the phone and called commissioner Jay Monahan, who was immediately on board.
Three days later, the event aired live on Golf Channel, giving Detroit's tournament five days of live golf, instead of four — no small thing for the nation's starved sports fans.
"When you think about what Dan Gilbert has done for Detroit, there's a lot of avenues he's touched and been a part of in a great way," said Watson, a two-time Masters champion who was born and raised and lives in Florida, and has no real ties to Detroit — other than his appearances at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. "I learned from people like him.
"I took the idea to the Tour, they blessed me with the opportunity. Obviously with the Rocket Mortgage team behind us, they let us do it and run wild with it. So it was a dream come true that they let me do it."
Watson, of course, had no trouble getting a foursome together.
"Super excited to be a part of something bigger than me," said Varner, who for the record, got to hoist the championship belt with Watson.
During golf's shutdown, there were two high-profile charity exhibitions — one with Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff, and the other with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Both were entertaining if for no other reason than the star power, and they raised a lot of money for COVID-19 causes, but the big complaint was that those lacked some personality. (Though the Tiger-Phil one had more than the previous one.)
That was no issue with Wednesday's fun-fest — there could be no fan-fest — which featured a whole bunch of smack talk and shooting the breeze, four buddies quoting movies and giving each other a hard time.
The exhibition was made possible, of course, by the fact that pro-ams — the corporate golf that takes place the Wednesday before the start of PGA Tour tournaments, featuring a pro grouped with amateurs and local celebrities — aren't happening right now, as PGA Tour tournaments continue to be played without fans for at least another week.
But even when the pro-ams return, the PGA Tour might consider adding the Bubba brainchild to the weekly schedule, even if on Tuesdays. It made for some excellent TV, with viewers hearing everything that was said. And it made for good charity, too. In just two hours, the Rocket Mortgage Classic raised more than $1 million — last year, the tournament donated $1.1 million to charity, and that was when they had ticket sales. During the exhibition, fans were able to donate, while Quicken Loans' Jay Farner donated $250,000, Workday CEO Aneel Bhusri $250,000, Fowler $100,000 and Watson $25,000.
"This is the best exhibition I've seen," Langwell said. "I would not be surprised if this type of thing keeps happening.
"We just did what Bubba really wanted to make happen."