RMC notes: PGA Tour tournament leads to membership spike at DGC; Shippen here to stay

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — It was early in 2018 that Detroit Golf Club officially was given its Holy Grail: a place on the PGA Tour's summer schedule.

A little more than three years later, the Rocket Mortgage Classic's impact throughout the Metro Detroit area has been significant, from the fans to the amounts of charity dollars it has raised, and which stay within the community.

The club, too, has seen the positive impact first-hand. Membership is up. Way up.

Detroit Golf Club has hosted the Rocket Mortgage Classic since 2019.

"It's been huge," said Mark Douglas, president of Detroit Golf Club. 

"We got the Rocket, and everything just sort of took off from there."

Before the Rocket Mortgage Classic, which was first played in 2019, Detroit Golf Club's membership was about 650. Today, it's closing in on 800. The club is considered full at 900.

The recruitment efforts actually predated the Rocket, when discussions were in the early stages between the club and the PGA Tour. It was then the membership committee started focusing on junior memberships and intermediate memberships, knowing a majority of those members eventually become adult members. Recruiting younger members is the lifeblood for country clubs, which typically have older rosters.

Recruiting members away from other clubs is difficult, but finding members during the COVID-19 pandemic has been surprisingly easier. Golf was one of the few leisure activities that was allowed during the state's semi-shutdown, creating log jams on public-course tee sheets, leading to more private-club interest.

There's no shortage of private clubs to join in Metro Detroit, from the affordable to the uber-luxurious. Detroit Golf Club falls in between, and has one thing going for it that nobody else does: the Rocket.

"The Rocket has been huge for that," Douglas said. "If anything, it's brought a little mystique to the club. They see it on TV, and things look familiar ... it tends to show well.

"It makes people realize or wonder, 'What am I missing?'"

The partnership with the PGA Tour has provided additional benefits to the club, including a better golf course, improved maintenance, and a $4.5-million clubhouse renovation, among other projects.

The deal between the PGA Tour and Rocket Mortgage was for four years, with next year being the fourth year. It's expected an extension will be signed and become official before the start of the 2022 tournament.

Shippen future

Organizers of the inaugural John Shippen National Invitational came away pleased with the two-day event, which awarded a sponsor's exemption into the Rocket Mortgage Classic for 48-year-old Timothy O'Neal, and exemptions into two LPGA Tour events, including Flint's Shasta Averyhardt at this week's Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Midland.

The fields were small, with 20 men and 12 women, but that's OK, said Jason Langwell, tournament director of the Rocket Mortgage Classic. Langwell's parent company, Intersport, co-founded the Shippen, with the Woods & Watts Effect, co-founded by Detroit's Sommer Woods, a former collegiate golfer.

"The way it needs to grow is with just more awareness," Langwell said. "It's really not even about making it bigger. One of the things we wanted to do with this is put a spotlight on these Black men and women that play the game at a high level.

"The growth is just in the storytelling and making it more known. That's the focus."

Tim O'Neal looks back and smiles at some fans after his tee shot on the 10th in Round 1 during the 2021 John Shippen.

The Shippen, named after the nation's first Black golf pro, featured top Black men and women, amateurs and professionals. The tournament paid all expenses, including travel, lodging and food, for participants, to remove any barriers.

Other PGA Tour tournaments have diversity initiatives, including the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles which awards the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption (given to Flint's Willie Mack III this year). But this tournament is the first of its kind, and the PGA Tour is considering adding more throughout the country.

Where Langwell does want to grow, in terms of numbers, is with the Shippen business summit, for recent high school and college grads interested in going into the golf business. The summit was virtual this year, because of COVID-19 concerns, and drew about 1,000 participants. But it will be in-person moving forward. 

Chips & divots

►Things were different at the 2021 Rocket, compared to the last time fans were here, in 2019. Autograph and selfies were prohibited (loosely; many players didn't comply); parking was farther away, at Wayne State as opposed to the close-by fairgrounds, though there were surprisingly few complaints given the regular schedule of the shuttles; and hospitality structures were open-air, for health and safety reasons.

That last one might just stick around. Tournament organizers found fans were pleased with the set up, because it provided a better view of the golf course, given there were no walls.

"As it turned out," said Langwell, "everyone loved the experience."

The major hospitality structures were located in AREA 3-1-3, at holes Nos. 14-16, and along the 18th fairway. Most required a VIP ticket, though that went out the window during the playoff, "which was fine," Langwell said, with a laugh.

►The previous two Rocket Mortgage Classic champions, Nate Lashley in 2019 and Bryson DeChambeau in 2020, signed sponsorship deals with the title sponsor shortly after their victory. It's not clear if Cam Davis, who won the 2021 tournament in a five-hole playoff, will get the same opportunity.

Davis is from Australia, and Rocket Mortgage doesn't sell mortgages down under.

DeChambeau, Lexi Thompson and Rickie Fowler remain the headliners in Rocket's golf portfolio.

►The first two Rockets played firm and fast, and, thus, short. This year's was different, because of all the rain, which softened the course and made it much longer, plus the wind that followed.

Douglas, for one, loved it.

"What it really did, it made it a lot more like when we play it," he said.

►For those who thought the Rocket field was weak, you might want to think again. Did you check out of the field for the following week's John Deere Classic, where "featured" pairings included Zach Johnson, Daniel Berger, Kevin Na, Steve Stricker, Dylan Frittelli, Brian Harman, Sungjae Im, Anirban Lahri, Cam Davis, Si Woo Kim, C.T. Pan and Sebastian Munoz? Woof.

►Still more marquee events on tap in the area, with the LPGA Tour in Midland this week, the Champions Tour's Ally Challenge in Grand Blanc Aug. 27-29, the U.S. Senior Amateur at Country Club of Detroit Aug. 28-Sept. 2, and the Solheim Cup in Toledo Aug. 31-Sept. 6.

►Next year's Rocket Mortgage Classic is expected to be played June 30-July 3. The PGA Tour is expected to release the 2021-22 schedule soon.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984