DETROIT – It’s a week of unknowns for PGA Tour players in the Motor City.
The Tour is ending a decade-long absence in Michigan, staging an event here for the first time since Tiger Woods won the final Buick Open in 2009, months before his name became tabloid fodder. But that was at Warwick Hills up in Grand Blanc, a suburb that’s closer to Flint than Detroit. This week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic sits inside the city limits of the blue-collar town, staged on a course that sits next to a city park with rugged 8 Mile Road about a par-5 away.
The inaugural edition of the event, taking the spot on the Tour calendar of the former Quicken Loans National but not its tournament history, is the first-ever event actually staged in Detroit. And it brings with it a century-old question mark in Detroit Golf Club, an old-school Donald Ross layout that nearly every player in the field will see for the first time upon arrival.
This is the opening leg of a fortnight of first-time events for the Tour, with the scene shifting west next week for the 3M Open in Minnesota. But that tournament will be held on a longtime PGA Tour Champions host, and its place within the TPC family gives players a certain understanding of what to expect.
That’s not the case this week, where creatures of habit will likely spend an unusually large amount of time with their noses stuck in yardage books. The crisscross layout, following the routing of the North Course while stepping over the South that this week is hosting the driving range and fan zone instead of actual golf shots, is one that they’ll have to learn on the fly.
The course at first glance seems like a scaled-down version of Firestone Country Club, with lush rough and tree-lined fairways the most prominent traits. An informal poll of players drew comparisons to Ridgewood and Plainfield in New Jersey, both former playoff event hosts and the latter another Ross design, as well as Canterbury and Inverness in northern Ohio.
“It’s pretty wild,” said Bubba Watson. “It’s tree-lined, but it’s the kind of grass, the way the shots you’re hitting into the greens with the slopes and undulations. From tee to green it’s not too bad. It’s kind of fair, kind of open. I shouldn’t say that until after I tee off, but it’s kind of open.”
Watson must like his chances this week, since he compared the new host venue to two courses where he’s won a total of six events: Riviera Country Club and TPC River Highlands. But given that Detroit GC was designed by Ross back in 1916, its bones bear a focus on the final shots on each hole – not the first.
“It’s the greens. The greens are going to be very difficult,” Watson said. “Right off the greens is some high rough, so around the greens it’s going to be the difficult part. It’s just going to be a matter of putting the ball in the right position after your tee shots.”
Unlike last week’s venue, where watery danger lurked around every corner of the closing stretch in Connecticut, there won’t be many penalty drops in Detroit. In fact, one of the few penalty areas on the course is actually bone-dry – a grassy ditch that runs in front of and along the right side of the 18th green, one that would seem rather ordinary were it not surrounded by red stakes.
This is a vintage design to welcome players back to an area that hasn’t seen a professional men’s event in 10 years, and it’s one that plans to challenge players without pulling any punches.
“They did a great job of modernizing an older layout,” said Rickie Fowler. “It’s nice, it allows you to drive the ball or hit driver quite a bit from what I’ve seen. You play some old courses that are sometimes either too tight or don’t have the length to allow you to hit driver, but that’s not the case here.”
Winds were up for players getting a look at the course Tuesday, and the layout plays its most challenging when the pitched and pocketed green complexes are firm and fast. But that likely won’t be the case for the entire week, with calmer winds and periods of rain expected.
In fact, the forecast seems like a recipe for top players to torch the par-72 layout, which stretches beyond 7,300 yards and boasts a 635-yard fourth hole but offers little to defend against accurate iron play when conditions are soft. It’s a scenario that already has some players wondering about what might be done to beef things up down the road, as a tournament and a city both get their collective footing after a noticeable absence.
“After this year, if scoring’s not too low, maybe they’ll keep it like this. But if scoring gets a little low, they could bring in these fairways a bit,” said Billy Horschel. “It’s the first year of the event. Usually you make changes after year 2, 3, 4, that type of deal. When you realize, ‘Hey, we need to bring in these lines a little bit.’ But we’ll see what happens.”
Even if the winning total reaches well into red figures, it’s likely that area fans and tournament organizers won’t lose much sleep. After all, having top Tour players shoot 20 under in your city is better than having them fly overhead while en route to their next event.
Tournament golf is back in a sports-driven town on an old-school track, and the players contending over the weekend will likely be the ones who prove to be the quickest studies.