How a 'magician' and dozens of staffers weathered the storms to make the Rocket happen

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — They say not all superheroes wear capes.

Some wear ponchos — often, if not intentional, color-coordinated with the bags under their eyes.

There are a lot of reasons the PGA Tour has been almost universally pleased with its partnership with Rocket Mortgage and Detroit Golf Club — all together, pointing to an extension expected to be announced sometime in the near future — and the DGC grounds crew certainly skyrocketed up the power rankings earlier this month. Superintendent Jake Mendoza and his staff were near miracle workers, turning a super-soaked golf course into a playable venue when pre-tournament week forecasts had some folks rumbling about possibly 54-hole or Monday finishes.

A view of Detroit Golf Club on Saturday, June 28, before the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic was played in full — heck, it actually went 77 holes, with a five-hole playoff — and finished as scheduled, Sunday night, July 4. It weathered the storm, or, more accurately, storms, when the stakes were great: It was the largest-attended sporting event in Michigan since pre-pandemic.

"Jake is a magician," said Mark Douglass, Detroit Golf Club's president.

It had mostly been a dry and humid spring and early summer, setting up Detroit Golf Club to play like it did for the touring pros the first two years of the Rocket Mortgage Classic: Fast and firm, a drive-wedge exhibition.

Then came the Friday night before tournament week, when the skies opened and absolutely drenched the property south of Seven Mile and west of Woodward. There's only one hazard on the tournament 18, guarding the front of the green on the par-5 14th. By Saturday morning, there were many new ones.

The course was underwater, and that's not hyperbole.

The club owns six pumps, and Mendoza and his staff already had on hold several more rental pumps. Fearing the worst with the forecast, he went ahead and booked them and had them delivered before the Friday storm. Once the groundscrew saw the damage Saturday morning, they ordered even more. They began running eight 2-inch pumps, two 3-inch pumps, a 4-inch pump and a 6-inch pump, trying any way they could to get rid of the water — no simple feat, given DGC is the flattest course on the PGA Tour schedule, and there's no easy run-off avenue inside 

He put his staff of 50 to the test, as well as a group of 39 volunteers from courses locally and nationally — though many of them couldn't even get to the course Saturday, June 26, because of the flooding. Some groundscrew members left their homes in the morning, and couldn't arrive until late in the afternoon.

"It wasn't just a one-time heavy rain; it felt like it was just a non-stop monsoon season," Mendoza said. "I wouldn't say anybody on my team slept all that much that week."

With such a devastating rain, under normal circumstances when just grooming the course for the members, Mendoza could close the course for a couple days. That wasn't an option now. The course was closed to golf Saturday, as the crew pumped as much water as they could, while still putting up some of the infrastructure (Mendoza laughed at the scenes of staffers putting up scaffolding, while standing in knee-deep water; amazingly, no temporary structures suffered damage, and no big trees came down). Saturday was supposed to be a practice day for the inaugural John Shippen Invitational, which was set to award exemptions to top Black pros and amateurs into the Rocket, and two LPGA Tour events.

But Mendoza and staff got it open for Sunday's first round of the Shippen, which was completed Monday.

More heavy rain came Tuesday, June 29, but the crew still was able to get AREA 3-1-3 in good-enough shape to play the celebrity scramble, a fan favorite and a significant charity fundraiser for the tournament's Changing the Course Initiative. The power then went out at the club Tuesday night, and didn't return until Wednesday afternoon. (Joe Vicari, Metro Detroit restaurant mogul and Detroit Golf Club member, came through there, using Andiamo's mobile kitchen to feed the players and staff.)

People start to head for cover after a heavy rain falls during Round 1 of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Golf Club.

On Wednesday, June 30, there was more intermittent rain, but they still got the pro-am in, a huge victory, given that's another event with major financial implications. That event caters to sponsors, who paid big bucks to support the tournament. The pro-am was canceled by COVID-19 in 2020.

The tournament went off as scheduled, at 6:45 a.m. Thursday, July 1 — with first men out, Byeong Hun An, Doc Redman, Brandon Hagy, James Hahn, D.J. Trahan and Patrick Rodgers, met with soft conditions, with lift-clean-and-place rules. It was long, but playable. At least, it was until more heavy rains came shortly after noon, shutting down play. The storm was fast and furious, but the cleanup was extensive. The course simply wasn't equipped to handle any more water. More than 4 inches had been dumped the previous Friday night and Saturday morning, and Mendoza knew even two-tenths of an inch more could cause fairways to flood. The delay Thursday brought six-tenths of an inch; the 18th fairway was a lake within minutes.

As soon as the lightning all-clear was given, Mendoza's staff — 35 were always on standby, including some volunteers, who worked in shifts — was on the course with squeegees and rollers. After 3 p.m., players returned to the course and, amazingly, the heavy majority of the 156 players finished their round.

"It was a tough start. That was really challenging. Standing up there on the 10th tee on Saturday and essentially seeing some brand-new water hazards we didn't think were there, it's unsettling when you see that," said Jason Langwell, tournament director. "But, man, did Jake and his team do an unbelievable job.

"The team was unbelievable, and then people from Wayne County, Oakland County, showing up with pumps, people stepping up, saying, 'Hey, can we help.' It was awesome."

The forecast before tournament week was ugly, which led to the quite whispers about getting the tournament in. The PGA Tour hadn't had a Monday weather finish since 2019, and hadn't shortened one to 54 holes or canceled one altogether since 2016. It seemed the Rocket might be updating that record book.

But after Thursday, the rain stayed mostly away, other than some occasional brief and light showers, but nothing that interrupted play.

The tournament was back on schedule after Friday's round, July 2. And it was back to playing the ball down for Saturday's round, July 3. The champion was crowned shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday, July 4, despite a whopping 7.5 inches of rain falling on the club while the PGA Tour was on site. The pumps ran nonstop from Saturday morning through Saturday afternoon before the tournament began, and off an on through Friday.

Mendoza noted the crew had some things working in its favor. For starters, the PGA Tour walks, while most of the membership rides. It didn't have to worry about cart wear on the course, and could simply move as much water as it could to the rough, where players could get free drops. Also, Mendoza said, the irrigation system installed by course architect Donald Ross in the early 1900s has held up amazingly well. The club, thanks to its three-year-and-counting partnership with the PGA Tour, also invested in a trencher, the STEC Trenchit, which helps make for additional drainage. Michigan also has tons of daylight to work with in July, some 15 hours, so even a lengthy delay wouldn't prove fatal.

The Detroit Golf Club groundscrew works to clear the grounds of heavy water during the Rocket Mortgage Classic week.

The players, from Patrick Reed to Phil Mickelson and a host of others, raved about the groundscrew's efforts, which had the course playing a bit faster and firmer by the final round. The course actually played tougher than the first two years, with Cam Davis winning at 18 under, after Bryson DeChambeau won at 23 and Nate Lashley at 25 in 2020 and 2019, respectively. Tee shots got next to no roll the first two days, and thus the par 5s, mostly easy and reachable the first two years, grew some fangs. Many players attacked them with drivers off the deck, after hitting mid to low irons the first two years. 

Mendoza, who came to DGC from storied Medinah in February 2018 in anticipation of the club hosting the new Rocket Mortgage Classic, said it was "very cool" to see the players' strategy change from past years.

But cooler yet was seeing the players play at all.

"It was a daunting task," said Mendoza, who, remarkably, made it home every night for a couple hours sleep, before arriving back at the course before 3 a.m. every day to work, staying till 9 or 10 p.m. (In bed by 10, up by 2, confirmed one of Mendoza's top lieutenants). "The full team pushed very hard through a lack of sleep and adverse conditions.

The work actually continues, for another few weeks. The crew still has to take down all the hospitality seating structures, get the course back into shape for the 800-plus membership, and, soon, aerify and seed the greens — all with more heavy rain expected to arrive in the coming days.

But the PGA Tour already has left town, and it left town happy.

That, of course, allows Mendoza to sleep easy — that is, whenever he actually gets to sleep.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984