Over The Top

Organizers of Detroit’s inaugural PGA tournament, the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Golf Club, are aiming to make the annual event one of the top draws of the season.
Detroit Golf Club
The Detroit Golf Club will host the Rocket Mortgage Classic from June 25-30. Most of the tickets and corporate chalets have been sold for the inaugural event.

The success of Detroit’s first ever PGA tournament, the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Golf Club, to be played June 25-30 may hinge on how well the organizers transplant the feel-good vibes of a resurging Motor City onto the grounds of the staid, 120-year-old private club on the city’s northern limits.

Consider that, with 50 Tour events on the calendar this season in nearly every part of the country, marquee players like Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth only have so many weeks to play between the four major championships. With input from their managers, players pick and choose which of the 20 to 25 tournaments they play in each year. Their decisions can be either personal, or dictated by contractual business relationships.

Organizers of Detroit’s inaugural tournament have been leaning toward personal preferences, doing their homework on selling players on how they and the new tournament can draw further attention to the growing national interest in Detroit’s comeback.

As the tournament director, Jason Langwell, a former collegiate golfer and veteran sports and golf promoter, believes the Rocket Mortgage Classic can become another headline in Detroit’s storyline. What’s more, the tournament offers an attractive $7.3 million in prize money.

“We need this to be more than just great golf at the Detroit Golf Club. We’ve got to take the spirit of Detroit, which we define as the people and places throughout the city, and bring it to the Detroit Golf Club,” Langwell says. “And (we’ve got) to take what we’re doing at the Detroit Golf Club and the Rocket Mortgage Classic and bring it to Detroit. If we can do that successfully, then you’ll feel (as though), when you’re at the Detroit Golf Club, you’re truly in the city.”

Casey Hurbis, chief marketing officer at Quicken Loans Inc., a sister company of Rocket Mortgage (both are owned by Dan Gilbert), endorses Langwell’s sentiments.

“The Rocket Mortgage Classic at the historic Detroit Golf Club is about so much more than golf,” he says. “Quicken Loans has fully embraced the city of Detroit since moving downtown in 2010. We believe that hosting a PGA Tour event in the city of Detroit provides another tremendous opportunity to shine a national spotlight on the innovation, culture, and people who are making an impact (here).”

Andy Glassberg, president of the Detroit Golf Club, expects the tournament will continue to build on the city’s renaissance. “We’re thrilled to be part of that continued revitalization,” he says. “The event is scheduled to be held at the Detroit Golf Club for the next four years. We’ve established a great rapport with the event organizers and Quicken Loans, (and) we look forward to hosting this tournament for many years to come.”   

Langwell says that early in the process, he learned how much weight players put on under-the-radar issues like the treatment and perks their caddies receive from tournament organizers. “One of the first things a player asked me as I walked up to him on the driving range at one of the events was, ‘What are you going to do for the caddies?’ ” he recalls. “That’s his most important business partner and the range is their office space, and the pro wants him to show up for work feeling awesome.”

With that in mind, caddies will experience locker room privileges they rarely enjoy elsewhere on the PGA Tour. Levelwear, a Canadian sports apparel company and sponsor of Canadian PGA player Adam Hadwin, is partnering with the club to provide upgraded food and a separate locker room for caddies.

“Because of the size of the Detroit clubhouse, they’ll have a wing upstairs for caddies. Most PGA Tour stops have just enough lockers for the players, so having a locker room for the caddies is a big deal,” Langwell says. He says Levelwear also will provide uniforms for volunteers and other staff working the tournament.

Detroit Golf Club

Langwell says he and his team spent time looking around downtown landmarks like Campus Martius, Beacon Park, Capitol Park, and Hart Plaza to determine what activities they can promote with sponsors to bring the golf tournament into the city.

“We’re going to do a 5K run downtown leading up to tournament week,” he says. “The whole mission here is to celebrate Detroit and what a great place it is to live, work, and play. The long-term vision is to turn (this event) not into just one week, but multiple weeks of activities. The 5K is just one example of that. What we’re looking to do is find the right sponsors and experiences that we can plug in and add to what will be a week of great golf.”

Langwell’s team also visited Louisville, Ky., host of one of the great bucket list parties that, at its center, is a horse race that lasts around two minutes. “The Kentucky Derby is two minutes on a Saturday, but it’s a culmination of 30 days of festivals, fireworks, balloon festivals, and things that take place throughout the entire Louisville community,” he says.

The dates of the Detroit tournament, June 25-30, provide an opening for the event to tie into two of the city’s most popular spectator attractions. “Monday night of tournament week is the Ford Fireworks, so we’ve communicated with the players and caddies (to let them know) they can watch one of North America’s greatest light spectacles,” Langwell says.

Another plus is Comerica Park. Only one other city on the PGA Tour has a major league team, and as Langwell found out, some golfers and their caddies are rabid baseball fans. The Detroit Tigers schedule dovetails nicely with the tournament, as the team plays at home against the Texas Rangers Tuesday through Thursday of tournament week, and the Washington Nationals come to town for a weekend series.

“A few players mentioned to me that they (already knew) the Rangers are in town that week, because they’re Ranger fans,” Langwell says. “That stuff helps. We’ll help any caddie who wants to go down to the park. We’ll provide transportation and give them an amazing game experience. We’re going to say, Come and enjoy Detroit on us. Players will be able to access tickets throughout the week, as well.”

Detroit’s growing reputation for its dining scene is another part of the sales pitch. “We’ve been sending around lists of hotels and restaurants downtown, and they’ve been great setting aside tables (for players),” Langwell says. “After players come here for the first time, we want them to say, ‘That’s the most fun, convenient stop I make.’ If you can do that and have a great golf course, over time that’s a recruiting mechanism for the field.”

Detroit Golf Club

The golf course on which the tournament will be played is itself a unique selling point. The two 18-hole courses at the Detroit Golf Club are more than 100 years old and were designed by one of the legends of the game, Scottish architect Donald Ross. “In talking to the players, they’re excited to play a classic Ross course,” Langwell says. “You don’t see courses like this one on the PGA Tour.”

Because the course was designed long before today’s high-tech clubs and balls allowed players to hit drives of nearly 400 yards, tournament officials had to revamp the layout by borrowing parts of the South Course to stiffen and stretch the 6,936-yard North Course to a more substantial 7,300 yards.

The South Course’s first hole, a 387-yard par 4, will be the tournament’s third hole, but players will use the back tees on the North’s first hole, creating a right-to-left dogleg. Tees on several other holes will be moved back, some as much as 75 yards, to gain additional yardage.

All that shifting around provides Langwell with another opening for bringing more of Detroit onto the golf club’s grounds. New signage utilizing the names of Detroit’s more well-known roads and highways will be posted around the golf club property. “Even if you’re a member of the Detroit Golf Club, you’re going to have a completely new way to get around the place,” Langwell says.

Also coming to the Classic is Shots for Heroes, a fan participation feature that was very popular at the National, Tiger Woods’ tournament that was sponsored by Quicken Loans. The tournament was played in the Washington, D.C., area before it folded last year when Quicken Loans declined to renew its sponsorship in a bid to bring the tournament to Detroit.

Fans taking part in Shots for Heroes take a 90-yard shot at a target green, and Quicken Loans donates money to military charities for closet to the pin, a hole in one, and shots within a certain distance of the flag. More than $1 million was raised over the last four years Quicken Loans sponsored the event. Langwell says the Detroit version of Shots for Heroes will be set on the club’s driving range in an area that will be designated the Fan Zone.

“We’re bringing it here and we’ll set it up in the Fan Zone, which will be one of the larger Fan Zones on the PGA Tour,” he says. “There will be a 60-yard shot where fans can show off their short game and win some money for charities.”

Langwell promises the Fan Zone should be popular among families who aren’t necessarily golf fans. “We’ll have Crispelli’s Bakery and Pizzeria in Royal Oak making pizza, we’ll have face painting, and games everyone can play and enjoy,” he says. “It will be a nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon.”

A Golf Odyssey

A pair of do-it-yourself golf course architects in northern Michigan has gained national acclaim.

Nearly 30 years ago, as Lee Stone, a fruit farmer from Beulah in northern Michigan, stood in line one morning with dozens of other golfers waiting to get on a Panama City, Fla., golf course that didn’t take advance tee times, he had an epiphany for the future of the failing 165-acre family farm back home.

“Maybe we should do golf,” he thought, looking at the long line of players in front of him. Upon his return, he ran the idea past his father. “Dad lived on the farm all his life. We didn’t have enough property to farm fruit efficiently, so we tried growing Christmas trees, but that wasn’t the future and my dad didn’t want to sell the farm,” Stone recalls. “I said, How about doing a golf course? He thought I was crazy.”

Determined to pursue his idea, Stone dug into a copy of what’s often called “Beard’s Bible,” a best-selling turfgrass science book by Dr. Frank Beard, an internationally recognized agronomist. The book covered practical and technical aspects of turfgrass management, drainage, course maintenance, and operations. He also reached out for more technical help from turfgrass experts at Michigan State University.

From there, he convinced a local acquaintance, Jim Cole, to join him as a consultant. Cole had studied turf management and worked on the construction of nearby courses like A-Ga-Ming and Crystal Mountain.

Stone and Cole collaborated on routing the holes and designing fairways, greens, and bunkers. Next, the duo brought in a bulldozer operator who had experience in golf course construction to shape the landscape. The result is the well-received Pinecroft Golf Club, which opened in 1992 and has cultivated a loyal following of players who appreciate the hilly terrain that sets up expansive views of Crystal Lake.

Four years later, Stone and his family acquired 374 acres for another golf course on an elevated site in adjacent Benzie County. The land had enough hardwoods that Cole was able to harvest the trees. With the proceeds, he purchased a D6 Caterpillar bulldozer to build the course. By then, Cole was the course superintendent at Pinecroft. Once again, he teamed up with Stone to design and build a second 18-hole course, Champion Hill, which opened for play in 2000. The course features steep hillsides, heather-lined fairways, large contoured greens, and elevated tees. Plus, players can see distant views of Lake Michigan, Crystal Lake, and Platte Lake.

Nick Ficorelli, an evaluator of courses at Golfweek magazine, says the Champion Hill layout is on par with other top courses. “He was blessed with good land, he didn’t move a lot of dirt around, and he found all the golf holes where they fit naturally,” Ficorelli says.

— Norman Sinclair

Resort Style

New and renovated hotels, golf courses, and restaurants are putting northern Michigan on the map.

A booming economy, a snow-filled yet mild winter, and new residential and commercial developments have tourism officials and resort owners in northern Michigan pining for a record-breaking summer season.

“In Gaylord we had more than 140 inches of snow last winter, but we didn’t get the severe low temperatures they had downstate, so our skiing and snowmobiling were outstanding,” says Paul Beechnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau. “Our President’s Day weekend was one of the best we’ve ever had.”

As summer approaches, Beechnau believes that momentum will carry over as new attractions across the region come online, and some old standbys are stepping up their game. “I feel like each year we just keep getting better and better as a destination,” Beechnau says, drawing on his 30 years of experience promoting the area and the 15 courses that make up the Gaylord Golf Mecca.

Coming off $4.5 million in renovations and upgrades, Treetops, the Mecca’s anchor resort, is breaking ground on the first of several four-bedroom cottages that will go up on a site between the third and fourth holes on the Robert Trent Jones Masterpiece golf course. Overall, the resort offers four 18-hole courses and one nine-hole track.

“There’s one cottage there that we acquired a few years ago that’s doing very well in our rental program, and there’s room for building several more. They’ll be ideal for golfers,” says Barry Owens, general manager of Treetops. The $1 million project is a partnership between the resort and a developer who also serves on the board.

Nearby, the turbulence in ownership over the past several years that roiled Gaylord’s oldest ski and golf facility, the Otsego Club and Resort, mercifully ended last summer. The club was acquired at auction for $1.8 million by investors Gary and Kathie Vollmar of nearby Lewiston,
who have had an interest in acquiring the property for years.

Recently the couple sold two auto supply companies, one of which had $220 million in annual sales. When they finalized the deal for the resort last year, part of the agreement required the previous owner to fully maintain the two courses. The move gave the Vollmars a running start on reviving the once-private club, whose ski club membership included the families of many of Detroit’s prominent auto industrialists.

Unfortunately for golf fans, a similar fate did not befall the Otsego Club’s sibling property, the Black Forest golf course, once ranked among the Top 100 courses in the country. Osprey Management Co. in Brighton once owned Otsego Club, Black Forest, and a second 18-hole layout at the Wilderness Valley Golf Club, on the western edge of Gaylord. The properties were put on the market when Osprey liquidated its assets.

A previous owner of Black Forest stepped in for Osprey, but the club spiraled downward and last year was seized by the IRS for back taxes totaling $1.2 million. Local reports say the 548-acre property was sold at auction last fall for $510,000. With the courses deteriorating by the day, the fate of the Tom Doak-designed masterpiece appears grim.

Other problem destinations didn’t share the same fate. The sprawling Big Buck Brewery in Gaylord, one of the state’s first large-scale craft beer brewers with restaurant seating for nearly 300 diners, has had its shares of ups and downs. The 45-foot-high long-neck Big Buck beer bottle that stands outside the restaurant is a landmark for travelers passing by on I-75.

Shawn and Cathy Smalley acquired the business last fall and reopened it following renovations that included a new kitchen, menu, and equipment upgrades. Like the Vollmars at the Otsego Club, the Smalleys are hands-on owners.

Similar vibes are coming out of the new Belle Iron Grill on the south side of town. The owner, Dean Bach, is a transplant from Ferndale, where he operated Dino’s Lounge and M-Brew. He sold both businesses last winter and moved to Gaylord to open Belle Iron Grill. The location of the new eatery stands to benefit from a new 11-mile extension of the nearby North Central Trail, which runs south from Gaylord and along Otsego Lake to Waters.

The $2.5-million extension was funded by the state, along with contributions from three counties. The path consists of a smooth, 10-foot-wide crushed limestone surface. The trail attracts non-motorized users in warmer weather and doubles as a snowmobile path in the winter. The extension connects to the original 62-mile trail that goes north from Gaylord to Mackinaw City.

Farther north, on Mackinac Island, comes the June 13 opening of the Mackinac House, a luxury 19-room bed and breakfast inn on Market Street, while the 167-year-old Island House Hotel, is finishing up a $4 million face-lift of its 90 rooms, dining room, and outdoor pool area.

— Norman Sinclair

Facebook Comments