Rocket Mortgage Classic missing most of golf's biggest names, but there's still enough star power

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — It's not the starriest field. Collectively, it's not even as impressive as who's teeing up at this week's Travelers Championship in Connecticut. And it might not even be the best field in the Rocket Mortgage Classic's brief, three-year history.

But there's more than enough cache to pique the interest of the crowds who will walk outside the ropes July 1-4 at Detroit Golf Club — a year after no fans were allowed on the grounds, and two years after the first-year Rocket drew crowds that blew away PGA Tour brass.

As of noon Wednesday, 148 of the 156-player field was set, with four spots set to go to qualifiers from Monday's event at Oakland University's Katke-Cousins course, two or three to go to Korn Ferry Tour players, and one to go to the winner of the inaugural John Shippen tournament for top Black professionals and amateurs who don't have status on the PGA Tour.

Phil Mickelson is set to make his first appearance at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Among them are two of the biggest names in golf, World Golf Hall of Famer and six-time major champion Phil Mickelson, who's coming off a PGA Championship victory at age 50. He committed to the Rocket last year, but decommitted after the schedule was adjusted because of COVID-19. No worries there. If the Rocket was going to get Mickelson, it wanted to get him when fans were in attendance, because there's no better golfer when it comes to fan interaction. Mickelson is one of 13 major champs in the field, including this year's Masters winner, Hideki Matsuyama, and last year's U.S. Open and RMC champ, Bryson DeChambeau.

"It's probably our strongest ever," Jay Farner, vice chairman and CEO of Rocket Companies, said recently, speaking of the field. "The list of players…is growing and it's incredibly impressive."

More: The Rocket Mortgage Classic field is nearly set; see who's teeing it up at DGC

With Tiger Woods out with injury, Mickelson remains the biggest draw on Tour, and a significant ticket pusher. The RMC said last week it was "nearing a sellout" on grounds tickets, but didn't elaborate.

Other major champions teeing it up at Detroit Golf Club next week include Bubba Watson, who emerged as ambassador for Detroit's effort to end the digital divide when he staged a charity exhibition that raised more $1 million for the tournament's Changing the Course initiative, as well as Jason Day, Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Lucas Glover, Jimmy Walker, Danny Willett and Gary Woodland.

Rickie Fowler is back, of course, as a Rocket brand ambassador (DeChambeau is one now, too).

South African Garrick Higgo, 22, who burst onto the golf radar with a win at the Palmetto Championship earlier this month, has committed, as have several other 2020-21 PGA Tour winners, including Max Homa, Si Woo Kim, Jason Kokrak, Sam Burns, Joel Dahmen, K.H. Lee, Matt Jones, Robert Streb, Brian Gay, Martin Laird and Hudson Swafford.

In all, the field includes 13 of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, but only two players in the top 10 — DeChambeau at No. 6 and Reed at No. 9.

None of the top 14 from last week's epic U.S. Open are committed, after Russell Henley decommitted following his tie for 13th at Torrey Pines.

Meanwhile, at this week's Travelers Championship there's the likes of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Daniel Berger, Paul Casey, Patrick Cantlay, Marc Leishman, Francesco Molinari, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Scottie Scheffler and Matthew Wolff, the latter who finished runner-up in last year's thrilling Rocket Mortgage Classic but only is just getting back into tournament golf after taking a self-imposed break to deal with his mental-health struggles. In his return, Wolff finished tied for 15th at the U.S. Open.

Johnson, world No. 2, played in the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic, staying during the week at Kid Rock's, but he missed the cut and hasn't returned.

There's no Collin Morikawa, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Louis Oosthuizen or, surprisingly, Viktor Hovland, who was given a sponsor's exemption into the inaugural RMC and was so appreciate, he suggested he'd return for the foreseeable future.

There are a lot of factors that go into who plays where on the PGA Tour, including the timing of the tournament. The Rocket Mortgage Classic falls two weeks after the U.S. Open and two weeks before the British Open. Two weeks before the British makes things complicated, as many of the game's biggest stars prefer to head overseas a week early to play in the Scottish Open to get used to links golf as well as get acclimated to the time change. And many of those who don't like to play in the John Deere Classic the week before the British Open, because that tournament charters a plane for British Open participants.

Then there's also the matter of who's comfortable on what courses — horses for courses, they say. Last year's champion, DeChambeau, who turned the Donald Ross classic into his personal pitch-and-putt course with his booming drives (once, he waited for the green to clear on a nearly 400-yard par 4; he hit 9 iron into the par-5 14th), likes Detroit Golf Club and figures to return for years to come.

But Detroit Golf Club, the flattest course on the PGA Tour whose main defense is long, lush rough and the typically tricky Ross greens, isn't for everyone.

"This golf course is something special," DeChambeau said recently. "It's not often that we get to play such classic golf courses.

"I think I'm hitting a little bit further (than last year). We'll see if I can make it a little bit shorter."

Several local players will be in the field, too, including PGA Tour mainstay Brian Stuard (Jackson/Oakland University), who finished tied for fifth the first year and tied for 30th last year. Also, PGA Tour member Ryan Brehm (Traverse City/Michigan State) is in, as is Michigan Golf Hall of Famer and Boyne instructor Jeff Roth and Flint's Willie Mack III, who received one of the tournament's four sponsor's exemptions

Two other sponsor's exemptions went to recent college grads Davis Thompson (Georgia) and Austin Eckroat (Oklahoma State), the latter whose college happens to be the same as unofficial tournament host Fowler. The final sponsor's exemption will be awarded to the winner of the inaugural John Shippen.

The field is subject to change until 5 p.m. Friday, except for qualifiers.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984