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Rocket Mortgage Classic will be remembered as a 'lonely' experience

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — As seen on TV.

Years or even decades from now, when sports historians are chronicling Detroit's PGA Tour tournament, that will be the main headline from the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Sure, there will be stories and stats and anecdotes about a Hogan hat-wearing hulk of a man named Bryson DeChambeau, this year's champion, who used his new physique, built on 3,000 calories and six protein shakes a day, to overpower Detroit Golf Club like it's certainly never been manhandled before. And the archivists will note that another California chap, a 21-year-old with a funky swing and drives nearly as long as DeChambeau's, Matthew Wolff, finished second.

Bryson DeChambeau pumps his fist after a birdie putt on the 10th green during the final round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

But fans of golf always will remember one thing: There were no fans.

"It's definitely a little bit lonely," defending champion Nate Lashley said early in the week.

The 2019 Rocket Mortgage Classic, the first-ever PGA Tour tournament held inside the city of Detroit, drew tens of thousands of fans, though nobody's ever provided us an exact number. A year later, we have an exact number: Zero, everyone but players, caddies, essential staff, a scaled-down roster of volunteers and a select group of media members was locked out from the grounds at Detroit Golf Club because of a global pandemic that's disrupted every walk of life, with sports — so often the industry we turn to in times of crisis, to get our minds off times of crisis — this time being no exception.

That, more than anything, made for a surreal scene — OK, surreal sound — all week long, last year's rowdy ovations for awesome shots or audible groans for stinkers replaced this year by almost absolute silence.

Outside of a few polite claps and some go-get-'ems here and there from those who own houses bordering the DGC grounds, and thus, got to be the only fans to watch the golf in-person — that gives a whole new meaning to property value — the sounds of the week consisted of background noise, usually from a distance.

MORE: COMPLETE ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC COVERAGE

There was a sizable "Detroit Will Breathe" protest outside the gates Sunday, the chants and horns audible throughout much of the course, and very clear on the broadcast.

“I know there's a lot of strife and trouble going on right now. To me, I love that everybody's voicing their opinion and I think that they deserve to do so,” said DeChambeau. “We're golfers here trying to provide the best entertainment. I think that's the most important thing that we can do.”

Throughout the week, there also were dogs barking, or sirens blaring, or generators humming, or leaf-blowers, or children playing and a mother calling after them, or, during Saturday's round, the piercing chimes of the ice-cream truck. 

"I got excited," Wolff, with a big grin, said to his caddie. He had heard the ice cream truck in the distance and then went ahead and made his birdie putt.

Golfers feed off the crowds, for better or worse. On Saturday, Wolff said he fed off the sound of the ice cream truck, saying it helped calm him down and eventually get his round going. You might find Wolff's reasoning a big, heaping pile of Moose Tracks, but then again, you weren't there, were you? And truth is, he went 7-under par the rest of the way to take a three-shot lead into Sunday's final round, where DeChambeau got hot, fired the round of the day, a 65, and turned that into his own three-shot win.

Last year, Lashley hoisted the champion's trophy for hundreds of adoring fans and tournament reps.

This year, on the 18th green Sunday, just before 6 p.m., when DeChambeau tapped in for birdie and the three-shot victory, he received maybe three or four polite claps from a surrounding crowd of maybe 50, mostly media, volunteers and tournament staff.

Bill Emerson, vice chairman for Quicken Loans, wasn't considered essential enough to attend. Neither, apparently, was Detroit Golf Club president Mark Douglas. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who had the vision to bring the PGA Tour to Detroit, wasn't here for a second year in a row — he still is recovering from a stroke last year — though he kept tabs on this year's event, watching on TV. Golfers' significant others weren't allowed, nor were their children, nor the closest of close friends, absolutely no exceptions.

'Resilient city' 

But there was another big theme to the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic: Professional sports returned to Michigan for the first time in more than 100 days. COVID-19 shut down the entire sports world in mid-March, eventually costing Detroit sports fans 11 Red Wings games, 16 Pistons games, 102 Tigers games and the IndyCar races on Belle Isle.

The PGA Tour eventually canceled 10 tournaments in all, but it wanted to see the Rocket Mortgage Classic play out — being a second-year event, tour officials were worried about how a cancellation could stunt momentum gained in Year 1 — but it left the decision up to tournament officials and the title sponsor.

Webb Simpson and Chris Kirk walk down the third hole Saturday at Detroit Golf Club, which held the second annual Rocket Mortgage Classic -- without fans in attendance.

Tournament officials and officials from Rocket Mortgage, including Quicken Loans CEO Jay Farner, had two main areas of concern: Could they hold the tournament safely, and could they find a way to reconfigure the tournament's charitable giving strategy to benefit an area that was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic?

It didn't take long to give it the green light, and the Rocket Mortgage Classic, originally set for late May, was moved to July 4 weekend — the fourth tournament since the PGA Tour's restart, but, again, the first major sporting event in Michigan since March 10.

"Detroit is such a resilient city, and what a great message to send to be able to have a sporting event in Detroit with all the COVID issues, all the impact COVID has had on the city," Emerson said.

"It's one more symbol of what a phenomenally strong city this is, for us to get it done."

It wasn't easy, of course. 

"Much more challenging," said Mark Hollis, the former Michigan State athletic director who's now vice president of business development at Rock Ventures, and a key point man for this tournament.

And that, mind you, is coming from a man who brought basketball to an aircraft carrier and outdoor hockey to football stadiums.

Taking the fans out of the equation, for starters, was a major financial obstacle, though, to the tournament's surprise, that issue was quickly overcome when several local companies stepped up to make up for the significant lost ticket revenue — with many fans who had purchased tickets also donating the money back or deferring to 2021, rather than asking for a refund. All that, combined with all the money raised from the well-received exhibition match featuring Bubba Watson and Jason Day on Wednesday afternoon, which was aired live on the Golf Channel, the tournament will far exceed last year's $1.1 million charitable donation.

That money will go toward the tournament's new "Changing the Course" initiative, which aims to end Detroit's digital divide by 2025. One revelation from the COVID-19 pandemic, which turned so many areas of life into online-only, was how many Detroiters didn't have access to the Internet, or Internet-accessible devices.

"It was always an issue before," said Jason Langwell, the executive director of the Rocket Mortgage Classic. "It was magnified by COVID."

Todd Montoya, caddie for Brian Stuard, wears a mask during the third round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Then, of course, there were the health and safety protocols — unlike any health and safety protocols we've ever had to deal with in our lifetimes. Golf is one of two major sports that has returned since the shutdown, along with motorsports. And 10 days ago at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, the site of the third tournament since the PGA Tour's restart, commissioner Jay Monahan held an impromptu press conference to address the Tour's viability, given a mini-surge of positive tests, and a rash of player withdraws from the Travelers. He wouldn't specify a number but suggested there was a number that would be a tipping point, forcing the PGA Tour to reconsider playing. Players shared similar sentiments.

An outbreak in Detroit would've been disastrous, not just for the Rocket Mortgage Classic's image as well as, frankly, Detroit's, but for all of professional sports. The PGA Tour has set out to show other sports the way to reopen — as the NBA, NHL and MLB prepare to return later this month.

The PGA Tour requires testing for every player, every caddie, every essential staffer, every week. Of more than 3,000 tests, six players and two caddies have tested positive — with one of those tests ruled a false negative after Cameron Champ tested negative three days in a row last week to be allowed to return to competition this week in Detroit.

In Detroit, there only was one confirmed positive test, Chad Campbell, an alternate. That was before the tournament began. There were no confirmed positives once the tournament got underway Thursday. Three players withdrew during the tournament, one with a back injury and two for unspecified reasons, as well as one caddie, also for unspecified reasons. The PGA Tour has made it a priority to publicly release names, for contract-tracing purposes.

Safety measures were everywhere you looked. Most everyone had to wear masks, outside of the players (we spotted one, Fabian Gomez, wearing one) and caddies, though many caddies wore them, and caddies used sanitizing wipes when grabbing the flagsticks. There were hand sanitizers everywhere you looked, even on the course, with Champ spotted using them often.

The PGA Tour has created a "bubble," and if you're outside the bubble, you stay there. There were less than 300 volunteers, down from more than 2,000; credentialed media was less than 50, from 500 in 2019, and even then, interviews were conducted via video. Food was individually packaged. Everyone got daily temperature screenings. You name it, they thought of it. And social distancing, which Monahan acknowledged last month got far too relaxed by Week 2 of the restart, was back to being a big thing for players, especially for Brian Stuard, Michigan's PGA Tour mainstay, who would set up with his caddie on the opposite side of tee boxes from his playing partners.

"We're just trying to do our part," Stuard said.

Said Webb Simpson, who withdrew from the Travelers amid a suspected COVID-19 exposure at home (he tested negative, as did his family, and then opted to play Detroit): "I feel very good about being out here."

Ryan Armour celebrates his hole-in-one on the fifth hole Saturday, with no fans there to cheer for his 14th career ace.

And, in the end, the players put on a heck of a show in Detroit — one of just 13 cities to host a major professional sporting event since the shutdown (Fort Worth, Texas, and Indianapolis have hosted two.)

Even if, yes, things were very different.

Back to normal in 2021? 

Lashley talked for months about how much he was looking forward to coming back and being introduced as the defending champion on the first tee at Detroit Golf Club, a year after his first PGA Tour victory. He got the introduction, but no ovation — though in a touching moment, his playing partners, Simpson and tournament ambassador Rickie Fowler, clapped and cheered for him.

Stuard holed out from 164 yards for an eagle on his first hole of the week, the par-4 10th on Thursday, and because there were no fans, he didn't know it went in until he got to the green.

On Saturday morning, at the first hole, Seung-Yul Noh holed out with a wedge for an eagle. No roars. Nada. He played it up anyway, waving to his right, then to his left — waving to nobody.

The only fans players saw all week were a smattering of Detroit Golf Club neighbors who took advantage of their homes bordering the course to get a view of the action — sitting atop some high-top chairs, so they could see over the black draping tournament officials had installed before the tournament.

"It's so nice," said Cindy Miotto, with a laugh, "that they're playing just for us." Cindy and Michael Miotto had friends over throughout the week, to watch from their home along Hamilton Road, from a backyard that bumps right up to the 12th tee. Fans were spotted at a home at the seventh tee, as well.

But there were no grandstands on the grounds, replaced, instead, by Rocket Mortgage red, black or white draping everywhere you looked, unavoidable on just about every golf shot shown on TV. Hey, when you're paying more than $10 million a year as a title sponsor, that's your prerogative.

The plan is for fans to return to the PGA Tour in two weeks, at Jack Nicklaus' Memorial tournament in Dublin, Ohio. There's no telling when Michigan will have its next major sporting event with fans.

"I know the people wish that they could be out here. We, as players, wish they could be out here with us, too," said Fowler, a California native and Florida resident who has taken a liking to Detroit — even spotted wearing custom golf shoes with the Detroit skyline emblazoned on them, as well as a pin of a "D" outlining a heart on his hat early in the week. "It is unfortunate because this is one of the great sporting towns of the country, some really passionate people up here.

"Hopefully, we'll be back to normal next year."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984