Rocket Mortgage Classic unveils The John Shippen, lead-up tournament for top Black golfers

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

When the PGA Tour decided to bring a tournament to the United States' most predominantly Black city, officials considered it their obligation to not just crown a champion every year, but promote diversity, as well.

On Monday, the Rocket Mortgage Classic's latest and biggest effort on that front became official, when it announced the creation of The John Shippen, a two-day tournament at Detroit Golf Club that will award exemptions into the Rocket Mortgage Classic and the LPGA's Great Lakes Bay Invitational.

The John Shippen tournament will feature the top Black men and women golfers who don't already have status on the PGA or LPGA tours. The field will include both the top professionals and amateurs.

John Shippen was the nation's first Black head golf professional.

"To have this event here in Detroit, it's a no-brainer," said Sommer Woods, a Detroit native who helped lead the effort to found the event, of which she is the tournament lead. She's also volunteer vice chair for the Rocket Mortgage Classic. "The Black golf history is so rich here."

The event is named after Shippen, the nation's first Black golf professional, who was the first Black man to play in a U.S. Open, in 1896. He was allowed entry because he registered as Indian. He finished fifth.

The tournament will take place June 27-28, with the first round on Detroit's South Course, and the second round on the North Course, which hosts the Rocket Mortgage Classic the following week.

The men's field will play as singles; the women's field will play as teams, because that's the format for the Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Midland, set for July 11-17.

The field size hasn't yet been decided, said Jason Langwell, Rocket Mortgage Classic tournament director, adding that a national committee has been formed. The event also has unofficial advisers, including current PGA Tour player Harold Varner III and HBCU college coaches.

"The feedback we've gotten from everyone," said Langwell, "is make sure you're identifying and providing an opportunity for the top players, players who are ready.

"This can help promote their progress."

Sponsors, including Rocket Mortgage locally and six more companies nationally, including Trion Solutions, will cover the total cost of travel, hotels and other necessary expenses for all players who are in the field, keeping with the initiative's theme of removing barriers.

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The PGA Tour has just four Black members, including Tiger Woods, and less than 1% of PGA of America club professionals are Black.

Detroit's history with Black golfers, meanwhile, is storied. Boxing champion Joe Louis took up the game seriously after retiring from the ring, and got an exemption into the 1952 San Diego Open. Ben Davis, Louis' teacher, was a legend at Rackham, as the course's head golf professional. Twelve-time PGA Tour winner Calvin Peete was a Detroit native.

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Woods, no relation to Tiger — "no relation or skill set," she said with a laugh — benefited from access to golf as a child, joining Selina Johnson's famed Hollywood Golf Institute when she was 10. 

That led Woods to a golf scholarship to Alabama's Talladega College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in marketing — setting her, eventually, on a path for a career in golf, even if not on the course.

That brings up another component of The John Shippen, a sports business summit to be held virtually June 29-30, which will put high school and college students in touch with professionals in the field, for internship and scholarship opportunities.

"That became the springboard for my career," Woods said of her time in the junior-golf program. "When you talk about the game, it's not just about the golf side, but also the business side."

The Rocket Mortgage Classic, which is entering its third year of a four-year contract, was awarded the PGA Tour's "Fair Way Award" in 2019, recognizing its diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Other PGA Tour tournaments have diversity initiatives, as well, including Los Angeles' Genesis Invitational, which awards a sponsor's exemption in honor of Charlie Sifford. Flint's Willie Mack III received it this year.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984