Paul: Rocket Mortgage Classic field is nearly set, lacks a huge star — for now

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — For the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic, they got Dustin Johnson, who paused his hobnobbing at Kid Rock's place long enough to blow a tee shot out of bounds late in his round to miss the cut in 2019. The next year, there was Bryson DeChambeau, who turned Detroit Golf Club into a chip-and-putt en route to victory. Last year, Phil Mickelson thumbs-uped his way around Wayne County, taking a few minutes to play some golf when he wasn't tweeting his disdain toward the local media.

As of right now, there is no huge, huge name in the field for the fourth playing of Detroit's first and only PGA Tour stop, which runs July 28-31. But that's not to say it's not a strong field. Tournament officials, in fact, would argue it's the deepest yet — and frankly, they might just be right.

"The best Rocket Mortgage Classic that we've ever had," Jason Langwell, executive director of the tournament, predicted when talking to reporters last month.

When the action begins early next Thursday, July 28, in the shadows of Palmer Park, 156 players will be teeing it up. As of Wednesday morning, 152 of those spots were spoken for — 147 actual names, with another exemption going to the winner of the second-annual John Shippen invitational (which will be Saturday and Sunday at DGC), and four to Monday qualifiers from The Orchards in Washington Township.

That means four spots are still open for any PGA Tour players who make a last-second decision to swing into Michigan. That's entirely possible, given the Rocket Mortgage Classic is the final regular-season event before the start of the lucrative FedEx Cup playoffs the following week.

Phil Mickelson gives a thumbs up to the fans during last year's Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club.

Anyone on the top 125 bubble will want to play Detroit (and is probably already committed), as will some guys higher in the standings who might want to improve their position. There's tons of money up top in the FedEx Cup race, which pays $18 million for first but seven figures for the top 10 and six figures from 11th to 125th ($950,000 down to $120,000). And there's always the chance a star or two might decide they needed a little tuneup before the playoffs start. Rocket Mortgage Classic officials had privately been holding out hope for this year's PGA Championship winner, Justin Thomas, even leading into the British Open, especially given his new sponsorship from Greyson Clothiers, which has a big presence in Detroit. Thomas has not committed to Detroit. At least, not yet.

Players have until Friday night to commit to the Rocket Mortgage Classic. Players have until 30 minutes after play is completed for the day at the 3M Championship in Minnesota to sign up for Detroit — hence the four open spaces. If nobody bites, the Rocket has a long list of alternates who can fill out the field.

As of today, the Rocket Mortgage Classic has six of the top 30 players in the world golf rankings, led by Patrick Cantlay, who's No. 4 — but carries easily the least star power in the world's top 10.

Cantlay is Detroit's only top-10 player at the moment. He's followed by No. 13 Will Zalatoris, No. 17 Tony Finau, No. 19 Cameron Young, No. 21 Max Homa and No. 27 Kevin Kisner. 

Of the top 100 players in the world, Detroit has landed 29 of them.

It's also has landed 11 major champions: Keegan Bradley, Stewart Cink, Jason Day, Lucas Glover, Zach Johnson, Davis Love III, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Webb Simpson, Danny Willett and Gary Woodland.

There are a host of young up-and-comers in the field, too, led by Zalatoris, who, in his brief career, has been a staple near the top of major-championship leaderboards. Sahith Theegala, one of the most exciting young players on the PGA Tour, is coming to Detroit. There's Cameron Young, who just finished runner-up to Cameron Smith at the British Open. There's Davis Riley, Seamus Power, Maverick McNealy and K.H. Lee.

There will be plenty of local rooting interest, too, with Ryan Brehm (Traverse City/Michigan State) and Brian Stuard (Jackson/Oakland), who both are in need of good weeks to make the FedEx Cup playoffs — Stuard may need one to keep full PGA Tour status, while Brehm will keep his card based on his first PGA Tour victory, earlier this year in the Puerto Rico Open. (Day, Cink and Fowler also are hovering in the top 125.) Benny Cook, the 2020 and 2021 Michigan PGA Professional Championship winner, is in the field.

Michael Thorbjornsen has received a sponsor's exemption into the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic is what it is — it's not a major, it's not a marquee event on the PGA Tour schedule (like the Memorial or the Genesis) and it doesn't draw much interest outside of Michigan (unless Mickelson is mad). It's a nice event for the local community. Some fields will be better than others.

And while this one isn't top-heavy, it's pretty deep, all things considered. It's arguably better than this week's 3M Championship. Hard-core golf fans will recognize plenty of the names. Casual golf fans never would anyway, but you don't have to take a quiz to get a beer.

ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC PLAYER COMMITMENTS

The LIV effect

The Rocket Mortgage Classic will be the latest PGA Tour stop to be played amid the backdrop of the LIV golf tour, which really hasn't had much effect on this year's tournament in Detroit.

The LIV only landed two notable players who were regulars at the Rocket, DeChambeau (who since his defection has been dropped as a Rocket Mortgage pitchman) and Patrick Reed. Johnson was a one-and-done here, and so was Mickelson, no matter how many acts of kindness Detroit did.

They both collected their don't-call-it-an-appearance fee, and never had any plans to return. Brooks Koepka's never played here, nor has Sergio Garcia. Recent Michigan State grad James Piot, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, cost himself a sponsor's exemption by joining the LIV; he is contractually obligated to play the Saudi-funded tournaments, including the one opposite the Rocket, taking place in New Jersey. (An aside: Piot's caddie, Dan Ellis, has resigned as an assistant at Michigan State to loop full-time on LIV, for a six-figure salary.) The sponsor's exemptions, instead, went to Michael Thorbjornsen, Chris Gotterup and Cole Hammer, with the fourth going to the winner of the John Shippen.

More LIV defections are coming, though, and it's worth noting that Rocket Mortgage Classic regulars Hideki Matsuyama and Bubba Watson, who's helped raise more than $1 million for local Detroit charities, aren't committed to playing this year. Both have been strongly rumored to be considering LIV, though Watson denied that earlier this year (so did Dustin Johnson, Koepka and DeChambeau, and, well ...). Watson said in mid-May he was going to miss six weeks because of an ACL injury, and that timetable has come to a close. He hasn't played since the PGA Championship in May.

Interestingly, Joaquin Niemann, who was part of last year's three-man playoff, also hasn't committed. Smith, fresh off the British Open title, appears as good as gone, though he wasn't coming here. Henrik Stenson, not a Rocket guy, is defecting, costing him his Team Europe captaincy for the 2023 Ryder Cup. That could go to Luke Donald, which could give the Rocket Mortgage Classic both Ryder Cup captains, with Team USA's Zach Johnson playing Detroit.

As for whether LIV — which has 48-player fields and is playing an eight-tournament schedule this year, and plans to hold 14 events next year — will cost the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the gate, that's not likely. While the PGA Tour doesn't announce attendance numbers, it's doubtful a tournament being played in New Jersey — where protests are expected, given the event's proximity to Ground Zero and the Saudi ties — airing on YouTube and finishing on a Saturday is going to make a dent in Detroit. The Rocket Mortgage Classic had some massive crowds in its inaugural year, then had no fans in Year 2 (the pandemic), then rebounded in Year 3, though not quite to Year 1 levels.

Expectations are for an increase from 2021, with the tournament moved off July 4 weekend, and with the tournament giving free tickets to Tuesday (celebrity scramble, youth clinic) and Wednesday (pro-am) events.

If anything, LIV is tearing locker rooms and friendships apart more than it's hurting as a whole the PGA Tour, which has banned all players who have chosen to take the massive paydays to play the Greg Norman-fronted startup league.

"Something's gonna eventually be sorted out," said defending champion Cam Davis, who won last year in a thrilling five-hole playoff, and joins inaugural winner Nate Lashley in the field. (DeChambeau, of course, is out.) "I would like to see something sorted out rather than the game get split."

Time will tell how that all shakes out.

As for the Rocket Mortgage Classic field, it's all but set — albeit, still with room for one really big name.

Rocket Mortgage Classic

When: July 28-31

Where: Detroit Golf Club

Defending champion: Cam Davis

Tickets: Starting at $70; details at RocketMortgageClassic.com

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984