Paul: Aces and duffs from the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic
Detroit — It could've been an unremarkable dud, with no fans, and no top-five players from the Official World Golf Ranking.
But Detroit, as it so often does, surprised this week, turning a tough situation into another successful Rocket Mortgage Classic.
This was Year 2 of a four-year deal between Quicken Loans and the PGA Tour, though all indications, especially after this week, point toward an extension sooner than later.
Here's a look back at the week that was at Detroit Golf Club.
BUBBA AND FRIENDS
The Rocket Mortgage Classic couldn't have started any better than it did, with a Wednesday exhibition that was the brainchild of Bubba Watson, and also included Jason Day, Harold Varner III and Wesley Bryan. They played the back nine at Detroit Golf Club, and did it on live TV, viewers being treated to all the chatter that goes on between buddies on the PGA Tour. The event also raised a ton of cash, more than $1 million, for the tournament's primary charity, the "Change the Course" initiative that vows to end Detroit's digital divide — by providing internet and technology for all Detroiters — by 2025. No surprise, the event was so well-received, especially on social media, that other PGA Tour tournaments are considering similar events.
There was some griping among Detroit golf fans a year ago that Detroit Golf Club played too easy, which was silly. Take a look at so many of the other regular-season PGA Tour tournaments, and you'll see similarly low scoring. Most fans want to see birdies and eagles, not bogeys and others — except for the U.S. Open, the one week a year we all love to see golfers suffer. That said, tournament officials did make some tweaks this year, and they worked, particularly the thickening of the rough throughout the grounds, but especially around the greens. Members have been saying for weeks that they've lost balls greenside, and we believe it after watching the best in the world struggle with those short shots this week. The rough proved a great defense.
DETROIT ON DISPLAY
Again, the course looked great on TV, for the nationwide audience, as did the aerial shots of downtown Detroit. (That said, no, Jim Nantz, the Renaissance Center isn't only a dozen blocks from Detroit Golf Club.) The Detroit love continued to make appearances throughout the week, even on several players' clothing. Rickie Fowler, the Rocket Mortgage pitchman who has been this tournament's ambassador, busted out some sweet white golf shoes featuring the Detroit skyline on them. Luke Donald, whose clothing sponsor is Greyson (whose founder, Charlie Schaefer, is a Birmingham native), which opened its first brick-and-mortar location in downtown Detroit last year, wore the Olde English D on his collar. And several golfers wore the red pin of a "D" outlining a heart.
The inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic got very lucky with the champion having an amazing back story — not only was Nate Lashley the last man in the field and ranked No. 353 in the world, he also overcame the tragedy of losing his parents and girlfriend in a plane crash to rise to winner on the PGA Tour. This year's champion is a legitimate superstar in the making. Bryson DeChambeau only has been on the PGA Tour since 2017, and now has won six times — and with drives longer than I-375, he’s threatening to become the game’s next “it” guy, if he’s not there already. Now, a winner here, that almost assures he’ll be back for years to come. Matthew Wolff, 21, a star on the rise in his own right, already has said he plans to make Detroit a regular stop on his annual schedule.
CHARITY IS THE CHAMP
The Rocket Mortgage Classic donated $1.1 million to a variety of charitable causes from last year's tournament, though the lack of ticket sales without fans this year threatened to put a dent in that number for 2020. Instead, the tournament far exceeded last year's giving, thanks to Wednesday's exhibition that raised more than $1 million, plus the generosity of new corporate sponsors, who came aboard this year to help the tournament navigate the challenges of putting on a sporting event unlike any that's ever been seen before in Detroit. It's also a credit to many fans who had bought tickets to the 2020 tournament, but instead of demanding a refund either donated those dollars back to the tournament or deferred their payments to next year's tournament.
OK, this is a bit unfair, given it was mostly out of tournament officials' control. The tournament's originally scheduled date, over Memorial Day weekend, looked to be set up to attract some of the biggest names in golf, particularly with Jack Nicklaus' Memorial originally scheduled for the following week in nearby Dublin, Ohio. But a move to July 4 weekend — it was either that, or cancel the tournament altogether — put a dent in the attraction from a players' perspective. For starters, it was the fourth tournament of the restart, giving players an ideal week to take off after playing three in a row (the previous three tournaments attracted most of the world's top 20). Also, the addition of a second tournament at Muirfield Village in Ohio didn't help matters.
This isn't a knock on the three-hole signature stretch of the golf course, the par-5 14th, the par-3 15th and the par-3 16th. Rather, we suggest a change in the Area 313 Challenge, which in its current format calls for a $313,000 charity donation to be triggered should a player, over the course of all four days, make an eagle-3 at 14, an ace-1 at 15 and a birdie-3 at 16. Aces are so rare — there have been two at the RMC, one last year by Ollie Schniederjans (his first) and one this year by Ryan Armour (his 14th), both at the short par-3 fifth hole. Our suggestion: Make the ace portion of the Area 313 Challenge eligible from any of the course's par 3s, then keep the eagle-3 at 14 and birdie-3 at 15. Keep pumping up Area 313, but maybe call this the 313 Challenge.
WE MISS THE FANS
This is the obvious one, and again is totally out of the RMC's control, with the PGA Tour going fan-less for its first five tournaments. (They were expected back for the Memorial in two weeks, but now that plan has been scrapped.) Tournament officials had planned to spice up the fan atmosphere this year, with more public grandstands along Area 313, particularly at the 15th, hoping to turn that short hole into one of the rowdiest in golf, like the undisputed king of crazy, the 16th at the Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, or the 17th at the old Buick Open at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc. Last year at Detroit Golf Club, there were a few too many hospitality tents along that stretch, making it a little more business-like. The fans should be back in 2020; hopefully they'll bring their "A" games.