About 80 yards up the fairway of what is playing as Detroit Golf Club’s first hole this week for the Rocket Mortgage Classic stands a bent and deformed oak tree. If not for a stone plaque at its base, onlookers might assume there had been an oversight by the grounds crew not to properly get rid of the large limb that lays rather hopelessly on the turf.
A nearby engraving from 1938 explains why it remains. Native Americans had cut the tree and pointed it toward the trail that once led from Detroit to Pontiac. In an ode to the city’s earliest residents, the club kept what is known as an Indian Marker Tree in its original position.
In many ways, there is no better metaphor for the PGA Tour’s return to Detroit this week. The tour left the area in 2009 when the Buick Open at Warwick Hills — about an hour’s drive northwest of the city — folded due to sponsorship problems. The event carried an enviable history, bookended with a 1958 Billy Casper victory and a win by Tiger Woods in 2009. That wasn’t enough to save it. But a change in the professional golf landscape has opened the door for a new event to take its place. Thanks to a revamped schedule and a motivated sponsor in Quicken Loans, the decade-long absence has come to an end.
That famous oak tree is telling us a story about this return, one that’s worth a listen. Detroit and the tree have a mix of scars, history and hope that all come together this week.
Just outside Detroit Golf Club, you will find some beautiful neighborhoods with pristine yards, some of the nicest houses in the city. It also doesn’t take much work to find the uglier, unpolished side. Near the State Fairgrounds, 3 miles from the course, you can find dilapidated houses with junk strewn across the yards. Vacant, abandoned fields are a reminder that there is still a stark divide between manicured Detroit and her struggling sister.
But the two siblings reunite this week at the place where Donald Ross designed his first 36-hole facility in 1914. It took tournament organizers almost no time to decide that this site would be the ideal host. It’s just 7 miles from downtown and oozes with history.
We know the old Detroit has both a grand and difficult past, but what about the present and future? That is what the community hopes to display this week.
This is in the shadows of where Henry Ford was born. Ford would later become a member in 1915 and help usher in important figures to be a part of Detroit Golf Club. Alec Ross, brother to Donald, won the 1907 U.S. Open and then served as the club’s head pro from 1918 to 1945. His successor was the first Masters champion, Horton Smith, who remained as head pro until he died in 1963. The PGA of America has an award named after him, one that rightfully honors golf professionals for outstanding contributions in improving education opportunities for fellow club pros.
And, if you can believe it, Smith’s successor also won a major championship. Walter Burkemo, the 1953 PGA Champion and a native of Detroit, took over in 1964.
The club has also welcomed influential members through its 80,000 square-foot clubhouse. Dennis Archer, the former mayor of Detroit who became the first black president of the American Bar Association, has spent time as a member. So have Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis and star pitcher Justin Verlander. Bordering the course is a 1927 home where Aretha Franklin spent much of her life until about 10 years ago.
In terms of competitive play, Detroit Golf Club’s history is still waiting to be written. It did host the 1992 U.S. Mid-Amateur when Danny Yates defeated David Lind in the finals, which is probably the second-most famous match to take place on the grounds. The top spot belongs to a pseudo Ryder Cup match that occurred during World War II. Before the matches were cancelled, the U.S. had announced their six-man team without Gene Sarazen making the list. That prompted Sarazen to challenge captain Walter Hagen and his team to a match against other American golfers of Sarazen’s choosing. The first of these matches took place at Oakland Hills in 1940 with Hagen’s team winning, but the next year Detroit Golf Club hosted. Desperate to win, Sarazen convinced a 39-year-old Bobby Jones to come out of retirement – they pulled off the upset in front of massive crowds.
Still, much of Michigan’s golf history is left to Warwick Hills and Oakland Hills. Within the state, Ben Hogan has won a U.S. Open, Gary Player has captured a PGA Championship, Europe thrashed the United States in a Ryder Cup, Arnold Palmer won the Western Open and Cary Middlecoff took home the title in the Motor City Open.
Those were all outside of Detroit city limits, making this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic a special and meaningful event. We know the old Detroit has both a grand and difficult past, but what about the present and future? That is what the community hopes to display this week.
When Quicken Loans became a tour tournament title sponsor in 2014, hopes of bringing a tour event back to the Detroit area became realistic. Company owner Dan Gilbert, known to many as being the owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, has fully embraced redevelopment efforts in downtown. Quicken Loans is also becoming one of the city’s largest employers. The Chrysler House in downtown serves as the office for some 17,000 Quicken Loans employees.
Because of the tour’s truncated schedule for 2019, and the endless amount of moving parts that came with it, tournament organizers only discovered they were running the event in Detroit 13 months ago. That’s about half the amount of time it normally takes to set up and run a PGA Tour event.
Officials moved quickly, securing Detroit Golf Club early in the process and then adding Michigan-based Cadillac as a primary sponsor. The tour helped by configuring its own layout that is a combination of both the North and South Courses, using certain holes as part of the practice range and properly utilizing every part of the triangle-shaped property.
While ticket sales and community support has been strong, it will take a consistently deep field to make this event work in the long term. Having Rickie Fowler as a brand ambassador for Quicken Loans assured them of one popular star but many others were forced to choose between last week’s Travelers Championship – the last two years it has been voted the most popular on the PGA Tour among the players – this week in Detroit or next week’s 3M Open that debuts in Minnesota. It’s an awkward time. Players aren’t sure how new tournaments will turn out, but it appears the 3M Open is an early winner. Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Jason Day, Patrick Reed and Tony Finau are among the current commits.
There is less uncertainty for the Minnesota event, partly because a PGA Tour Champions tournament has long been contested at TPC Twin Cities. Also, many top players like Koepka, Mickelson and Jordan Spieth played both the U.S. Open and Travelers Championship, decreasing their desire to continue a tough travel stretch by going to Detroit.
It’s not the end of the world for the Rocket Mortgage Classic, which still has Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama and recent U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland. If the course impresses and crowds show up in full force, there could easily be an improvement on the 11 of the top 50 players in the world in the field this week.
No matter what, there will be a ton of history and excitement for the future on display.
The North Course of Detroit Golf Club, a green enclave within the city which is hosting the Rocket Mortgage Classic, finishes here. Photo: Leon Halip, Getty Images
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