PGA Tour commissioner on RMC's impact on Detroit: The best is yet to come

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The PGA Tour's 2021-22 schedule includes only four tournaments taking place in U.S. cities more-populated than Detroit, and, of course, none of the tour's other stops can match Detroit in terms of diversity. It's the most-Black city in the country, hosting an event for a sport that continues to struggle with inclusion.

That's one significant reason why Detroit has been a target for the PGA Tour dating back more than five years, well before Detroit Golf Club first hosted the Rocket Mortgage Classic in 2019.

This week, the PGA Tour, Rocket Mortgage and DGC announced an extension through at least 2027.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was in Detroit earlier this week.

"We're in the City of Detroit, and it's wonderful for us to be in the City of Detroit and be able to showcase it to the world, particularly as it's well on its way through this renewal," the PGA Tour's commissioner, Jay Monahan, told The Detroit News this week. "We were going to be no place other than the City of Detroit.

"When we first started the conversation with Rocket Mortgage five, six years ago, that was important to them, and that was important to us."

For all the talk about the golf in the leadup to and during Rocket Mortgage Classic week — Nate Lashley's first win was a heart-tugging story in 2019, superstar Bryan DeChambeau overpowered the course en route to victory in 2020, and Cam Davis won an epic five-hole playoff this summer — it's the ripple effects that typically matter most to those who run the tournament, and the city that hosts the tournament.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic has raised more than $4 million for local charities in the first three years, including more than $2 million in 2020, when there weren't even any ticket sales. The 2021 charity numbers will be announced late next month. Much of that money the first year was designated toward inner-city youth golf initiatives, while most since has been earmarked for the tournament's "Changing the Course" initiative, aiming to end Detroit's digital divide by 2025.

This year, the Rocket Mortgage Classic also hosted the inaugural John Shippen Invitational, the tournament before the tournament that awarded to the winners exemptions into the Rocket Mortgage Classic and two LPGA Tour tournaments. (Rocket Mortgage even sponsored the men's winner, Timothy O'Neal, for the week, to the tune of several thousand dollars.) There have been other initiatives to create opportunities for Black golfers, notably the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption that is awarded every year at the Genesis Invitational. This year it went to Flint's Willie Mack III. But Detroit's event was the first of its kind on the PGA Tour, and tour officials were so impressed, there are rumblings of more such events throughout the country. (Mack was to participate in the Shippen, but was awarded a sponsor's exemption by Rocket Mortgage instead.) The Shippen also included a business summit, for recent high school and college graduates interested in getting into the business of golf, even if it's not through the playing avenue. More than 30 players participated in the tournament, and hundreds in the business summit, which was virtual in 2021, because of the pandemic.

"The inaugural John Shippen was just a shining example of things to come in the future through this partnership," Monahan told a crowd of dignitaries gathered on the DGC back patio Monday morning.

He added later in his conversation with The News, "I don't think you could've been more successful as an inaugural event, and as an organization. The PGA Tour, alongside all our industry partners, have a commitment to growing diversity in the sport."

"The Rocket Mortgage Classic," Monahan continued, "has simply made all the right moves."

Last season, there were only four Black players on the PGA Tour, and fewer than 1% of PGA of America club pros are Black.

What better place to continue making strides than Detroit, which is more than 80% Black. (The PGA Tour city with the next-most Black population is Memphis, at just over 60%.) Detroit Golf Club's president during the middle year of the Rocket Mortgage Classic's three-year run, Mark Douglas, is Black.

The PGA Tour also basks in Detroit's revival, a theme touched on at length this week, and wants to be a part of that. The narrative and the pictures, broadcast on CBS for two days a year are powerful. But much of that narrative and those pictures are about downtown.

One of the big selling points in coming to Detroit was that the PGA Tour's success in this tournament could help lead to significant infrastructure and beautification upgrades of Detroit's neighborhoods — think East Lake in Atlanta. That has yet to transpire here. The neighborhood surrounding Detroit Golf Club, south of Seven Mile and between Woodward and Livernois, looked better in 2019 than it does in 2021.

"We're going to be in a position to contribute more and more back to the community, because the community now knows that we're here through at least 2027," Monahan said. "When operating these events, and I've done it myself, knowing you've got a long-term commitment helps you with sponsors, helps you in the community, helps you with your team and all the things you're trying to do.

"We are really excited to continue to make a profound impact on the City of Detroit."

Said Rickie Fowler: "The tournament keeps getting better and better."

The only cities bigger than Detroit set to host PGA Tour tournaments in 2021-22 include Las Vegas and three in Texas, San Antonio, Houston and Austin. Most PGA Tour tournaments billed as being held in big cities actually are held in the suburbs. That's what makes Detroit unique, and why playing in the city was a must for Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert, whose committed well more than $100 million to the PGA Tour over the past decade, first sponsoring a tournament near Washington, D.C., and then bringing one to Detroit. 

To Gilbert and the PGA Tour, all the impact of playing in Detroit makes up for the fact the golf course is among the shorter tracks on the PGA Tour, and it is the flattest course on the PGA Tour. 

Those who've played the Rocket, though, rave about the course — a Donald Ross gem which still has the greens to get you, with the rough juiced up during tournament week — and the tournament's hospitality, not just for the players, but for caddies and spouses, too. While DeChambeau and Fowler are paid Rocket Mortgage pitchmen and have to play in Detroit — just like Tiger Woods was contractually obligated to play in all those Buick Opens just outside Flint — Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed, Masters champions, don't have to, but they haven't missed it. Reed raves about the hospitality (and that Shinola watch he was gifted), while Watson has become invested in Detroit's revitalization, making unsolicited five-figure donations each year.

Still, most players in the current top 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking haven't played in the Rocket Mortgage Classic. No Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka or Rory McIlroy. Dustin Johnson played once and hasn't returned. Xander Schaueffele was supposed to play one year, but was a last-second withdrawal. It hasn't stopped the crowds from pouring onto the DGC grounds, with more than 40,000 during the inaugural year, buoyed by the excitement of a first-time event, and pretty close to that this year, thanks to the presence of Phil Mickelson. There were no fans in 2020 (pandemic).

The field situation is going to improve, Fowler and DeChambeau insisted Monday, and Monahan echoed. The RMC's reputation through three years is strong, and the tournament's new place on the schedule in 2022, July 28-31, before FedEx Cup playoffs get under way, will help, he said. Jockeying for position entering the uber-lucrative playoffs could convince a few more big names to head to Detroit, which previously was sandwiched between majors, which was good and bad, depending on each player's routines.

"We're three years in. The word of mouth amongst the players is really, really positive, and our players operate with a purpose," said Monahan, 51, himself a former tournament director who knows the challenges of recruiting the biggest stars to a new event. "And the purpose here is massively significant, as well. You're going to see more and more players add this great classic to their schedules.

"Our players have taken note. Detroit is a special stop on the PGA Tour."

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984