MIDLAND, MICHIGAN | Most eyes have turned to southern England where the long-awaited Open Championship has come back in full force to the sand-lined shores, a healthy morning walk from the White Cliffs of Dover. Seeing those grandstands and hearing the proper British applause brings a flood of emotions, more than anyone expected. Golf in full is finally back. We didn’t realize how much we missed her.
But the R&A and Royal St. George’s warrant runner-up honors in the comeback-of-the-year contest. That trophy, if it existed, would go to the small town of Midland, Michigan, the Midland Country Club and their benefactor, the Dow Chemical Company, which is the title sponsor of this week’s Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational. Like the Open, the Dow GLBI canceled 2020 because of COVID-19. Fans, like those of the Open, were bitterly disappointed as Midland Country Club, like Royal St George’s, was in impeccable shape when the cancelation was announced.
Michigan also shut down at least as hard as the U.K. It was one of the first states to close and one of the last to reopen, not coming online until June 22, 2021 – 15 months after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer imposed some of the stiffest lockdowns in the nation.
But that was only one of the biblical-level plagues to smite the people of Midland. On May 19, 2020, three dams holding the Tittabawassee River breached. The first caused most of Secord Lake to spill into Wixom Lake. Catastrophe followed as that dam also burst, sending all that water into Sanford Lake, which couldn’t hold it. When the third dam breached, Sanford, Midland, Saginaw and other tiny hamlets most people outside Michigan couldn’t find on a map were swallowed in a flood unlike anything the region had seen.
Midland Country Club, low-lying with a lovely creek swirling through its belly, didn’t stand a chance. “It looked like a lake,” said Dow GLBI tournament director Wendy Traschen. “Within six hours, homes were swept away. Many others were flooded. We had about four feet of water in the basement of the (clubhouse).”
Then, in typical understated Midwestern fashion, Traschen said: “It was a lot for Midland. There wasn’t a lot of notice.”
“We put all the fitness equipment on cinder blocks,” said club general manager Todd Beals. “Then our people started getting evacuation notices for the homes, so we sent them home to take care of their families and property. But we also had some wonderful people who all came out. We had high-level executives (with Dow, the chief employer in the town) out here in waders moving furniture and helping people save what they could.”
Beals paused for a second and looked out over his golf course. “I’d rather go through a pandemic and a flood here in Midland than just a pandemic anywhere else,” he said. “The people here are that good.”
Driving through the area, you would expect to see remnants of the flood. It was only 14 months ago. The Ninth Ward of New Orleans has yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina and that was in 2005. But Midland looks like a Disney park. Both sides of the main road from U.S. Route 10 to the entrance of Midland Country Club are lined with flowers – yellow and orange – without a weed in sight. The lawns and shrubs are manicured, and the downtown restaurants are hopping. The club itself is one of the best conditioned courses on the LPGA Tour schedule with no lingering scars. If you weren’t told, you’d never know that the bridge to the island green 18th hole is new. And you would have no idea that the basement lower level was once full of water.
“You want to hit good shots in front of them, show off a bit. We’re all kind of performers in our own way, and yeah, it’s nice to actually hear some noise out there.” – Mel Reid
All you see is a perfect course with a full buildout and fans who are as welcoming as any in the game.
“That’s what’s so great about towns like this,” said former American Solheim Cup player Alison Lee. “You can go to a restaurant down the street and they’re like ‘Oh, are you playing in the tournament?’ Where I’m from in L.A., we have that Wilshire event and I’ll go to the restaurant literally across the street from Wilshire Country Club and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you play golf? That’s a thing?’”
Lee’s partner, Lindsey Weaver agreed: “It’s really cool that the community has really rallied behind this tournament, and a lot of people who work for Dow and Three Rivers and all the major sponsors. I’m staying with a family who works for Dow and they love this tournament. They actually feel a little guilty for so much involvement because they haven’t done any work this week. But it’s really cool to see that and such good crowds out here. They’re so uplifting. It’s nice to just have the fans back.”
“The great thing about Dow Chemical Company is that they are masters at problem solving,” Traschen said. “Within an hour (of the flood), Jim Fitterling, the CEO of Dow, had a plan. They had a task force in place and the communication was incredible. They worked with the American Red Cross and began a process of rescue and renewal immediately.”
The warm reception is welcomed by the players.
“It’s just really nice to see some people out here,” said English star Mel Reid. “You want to hit good shots in front of them, show off a bit. We’re all kind of performers in our own way, and yeah, it’s nice to actually hear some noise out there.”
That brought a smile to Traschen’s face. “To have this event means a lot to everybody,” she said. “You have your inner circle of people that you have remained close to for the last 16 months. But then you have your outer circle – Jim in the coffee shop or Sarah down the hall, people you’ve been in contact with but that you haven’t seen. This might be the first time you are seeing those people in more than a year. That’s what is so great about this event. That’s why everyone you see is so emotional.”
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