Caledonia's Ben Cook earned a spot in the Rocket three times; this week, he finally gets to play

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ben Cook was all smiles walking off the golf course after playing nine holes at Detroit Golf Club on Tuesday afternoon. He nearly aced that ninth hole, a par 3, then tossed a couple balls to two young fans sitting in the grandstands behind the green. The boys came down a few moments later for a first-bump.

Cook will be soaking everything in at this week's Rocket Mortgage Classic, which, for the west Michigan native and Ferris State graduate, is many years in the making.

"About four years in the making," Cook said, laughing. "And it's finally happening."

West Michigan's Ben Cook plays a practice round Tuesday at Detroit Golf Club.

Let's explain this.

The winner of the Michigan PGA Professional Championship is awarded a spot into the following year's Rocket Mortgage Classic, and Cook won the title in 2018. But while he got to keep the first-place check, a technicality — he hadn't been a Michigan PGA Section member for the required 60 days — meant that the runner-up, Lee Houtteman, of Cedar, got the spot in the 2019 Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Then, in 2019, Jeff Roth, a teaching pro at Boyne, won the Michigan PGA, but his spot in the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic was nixed by COVID-19. The PGA Tour clamped down on non-members playing.

In 2020, Cook won his second Michigan PGA Championship, but with Roth getting bumped out of the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic, Roth got the spot into last year's tournament.

Cook won another Michigan PGA Championship in 2021, firmly securing his spot. This week. Finally. The Michigan PGA also has to be appreciative, as his back-to-back wins put the Rocket rotation back on track.

"I feel like I should've played three times now," Cook said. "But it's great.

"I'm super blessed and happy to be here."

This will be Cook's fifth start on the biggest stage in golf — he played in the PGA Championship three straight years, from 2019 through 2021, and one other regular-season tournament.

He made one cut, but it was a big one. At the PGA at Kiawah Island in 2021, he tied for 44th.

For golf grinders, you're always looking for that one sign that you can make it on the PGA Tour. For Cook, he's had a couple. At the 2020 PGA, Cook played a practice round with eventual champion Collin Morikawa at TPC Harding Park, and actually outplayed him that day, by a lot. ("He was hitting it everywhere," Cook said.) Then came Kiawah last year, when he was low club pro.

He'd like to believe that experience has him poised for a solid showing this week.

"My first time, I was way more star-struck," said Cook, 28, a native of Caledonia, which is about halfway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. "Now, I feel like I kind of more belong.

"I've got the game to do this."

Ben Cook.

This year and last, Cook had status on PGA Tour LatinoAmerica, but things didn't go great. He played in nine tournaments, and made two cuts. His best finish was a tie for 52nd. He made less than $2,000.

But he's continued to work on his game, mostly in Vero Beach, Florida, where he and wife Miah — they married just before he won the 2020 Michigan PGA — recently bought a house.

They drove up in early July, and will stay until sometime in October. Cook will continue working on his game, while giving lessons at Yankee Springs, a public golf course near Caledonia.

He'll get plenty of time with family and friends, especially this week. His wife, parents, grandparents and his sister and her family will be in attendance this week, along with a bunch of friends. He figures there'll be between 50 and 60 people following each day, far more than the 15-ticket allotment the tournament provides.

Cook made a priority list for the freebies, and the rest will have to pay their way. Which is fine.

After all, they've had plenty of time to prepare.

"Definitely, things are ticking upward again," said Cook, who hasn't played a tournament since June — and hadn't played DGC since a college event in 2012. "It'll be nice to get the juices flowing again on Thursday.

"I don't really have any expectations. Just play as well as I can, and hopefully have a late tee time Sunday."

Cook is one of three Michigan natives in the field, along with PGA Tour members Brian Stuard (Jackson/Oakland) and Ryan Brehm (Traverse City/Michigan State).

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984