Major champs Jim Furyk, Mike Weir making Champions Tour debuts next week at Ally Challenge
Matt Stepnes was named the tournament director of the Ally Challenge in early February. Little did he know exactly what he was getting himself into.
A little over one month later, the surging COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports across the globe, throwing the industry's landscape into an absolute state of chaos and uncertainty.
"Everything changed, pretty much even more than on a daily basis," Stepnes said over the phone this week. "I mean, by noon, we'd be heading in a different direction."
Seven weeks after golf's main circuit, the PGA Tour, returned to action, the 50-and-older Champions Tour is now set to get started again, with next week's tournament at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club in Grand Blanc. It's the third year of the Ally Challenge, but it'll look a whole lot different, with no fans.
The LPGA Tour also returns next week, not far from Metro Detroit, with a two-week run in northwestern Ohio, first in Toledo, then in Sylvania.
The Champion Tour will follow the health protocols set by the PGA Tour, in that all players and caddies must test negative for COVID-19 before being allowed on the grounds. The same holds true for essential staff.
The tournament runs July 31-Aug. 2, and will feature the best field the tournament has had, Stepnes said, as players are eager to get back to competitive golf.
A full field list hasn't been announced yet, but it will include at least nine of the top 10 on the season money list, including two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer and Ernie Els, who won two U.S. Opens, two British Opens and is making his Ally Challenge debut after turning 50 in October.
Making their Champions Tour debuts in Grand Blanc will be former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, former Masters champion Mike Weir (a native of suburban Sarnia, Ontario) and K.J. Choi.
"It means a lot, it really does," Stepnes said of Grand Blanc serving as the host site for the Champions Tour's return to action.
"And we're gonna see the strongest field, from top to bottom, to date for the Ally Challenge."
Missing from this year's field will be Fred Couples, a fan favorite who last year expressed how much he loves Warwick Hills and how he planned to return for the tournament every year. The pandemic altered his plans.
The PGA Tour played the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit earlier this month, but the pandemic forced the cancellation of the Senior PGA Championship in Benton Harbor, and two LPGA Tour tournaments, in suburban Grand Rapids and Midland.
When: July 31-Aug. 2
Where: Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, Grand Blanc
TV: All days on Golf Channel. Friday — 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday — 2-4:30 p.m. Sunday — 3-5 p.m.
Tickets: None; because of COVID-19, fans aren't prohibited.
Defending champion: Jerry Kelly