As the light faded and the shadows stretched across Grand Blanc in the late afternoon of Aug. 2, 2009, six decades of the Buick Open drew to a close. Tiger Woods, at age 33, celebrated his 69th career victory by holding his third and final trophy from the tournament at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club.
The victory speech served as a valediction for Woods, who had grown up in the corporate cradle of Buick’s sponsorship, and also for Michiganders who had considered a PGA Tour event in their state to be almost a birthright since 1958.
As the players left and the crowds dispersed, the shadows stretched even farther.
Past the tees boxes where Woods and Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson had let their drivers roar. Past the raucous, rowdy and well-lubricated cocktail party that masqueraded as the 17th hole.
When Woods finally left Michigan after the last Buick Open, he left it in darkness. Pro golf had all but deserted the state, which was still in the throes of a global financial crisis that led to General Motors and Chrysler requiring a federal bailout. Corporate dollars to sponsor tournaments had dried up.
But an hour south of Grand Blanc, there was a quiet wisp of hope. Almost as soon as the lights had been turned out at Warwick Hills, a flicker emerged from Detroit Golf Club. Eventually, it turned into a beacon.
“So if you go back to right after the demise of the Buick Open,” Detroit Golf Club president Andy Glassberg said, “there was a lot of discussion in the city about how can we get an event back in the area?”
Glassberg, joined by former DGC president Keith Studzinski, recently sat down at the club with the Free Press to explain the behind-the-scenes workings behind the creation of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, which tees off this week and marks the PGA Tour’s first tournament in Detroit.
“It started with Tom Pursel and then Todd Flood picked up the banner,” Glassberg said of the two former DGC presidents. “(Flood) started trying to get to the PGA Tour to find out how we might be positioned to host an event. So, at the time, the expression we kind of used was ‘could we be tournament-worthy?’ ”
Thus began DGC’s journey to learn what it needed to do to host a tournament on the PGA Tour.
Sure, the club had lots of land, a location not far from downtown Detroit and two pedigreed Donald Ross courses that opened in 1916. But as the club’s leadership probed various sources, including the PGA Tour, it soon learned it mostly needed a sponsor and a date on the PGA Tour calendar.
“So during those years there were a couple attempts to find sponsorship that never came to fruition,” Glassberg said. “But meanwhile we had established a pretty good relationship with the PGA Tour. Keith was green chair, so we actually had people from the tour up here a number of times and evaluated what should the routing be, what’s the yardage, et cetera.”
While the club was gathering information, Glassberg said a renovation project got underway for DGC’s two courses to “reestablish our Donald Ross bona fides” by hiring the company of noted course architect Tom Doak, who with the help of fellow architect Bruce Hepner redid some bunkering and “restored some of the Donald Ross design.”
“And all of those investments were to the benefit of the members, independent of whether we ever (hosted an event), because you have no idea if you’re ever going to host an event,” Glassberg said. “But meanwhile we felt like we were putting ourselves in more and more of a position to be tournament-worthy.
“The PGA Tour had visited over the years, here and there, to see how we were doing and always loved the clubhouse. As you can see, there’s an enormous amount of space. Loved the golf course.”
But just two little problems remained.
“It’s just a matter,” Glassberg said with a laugh, “of date and sponsor.”
In spring 2018, both emerged.
What Glassberg and DGC didn’t know was that Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert’s Detroit-based mortgage giant, had been planning all along to bring a date and a tournament to Detroit.
After sponsoring the Quicken Loans National, Woods’ tournament in the Washington D.C. area from 2014-17, Quicken sponsored the event one final time in 2018 before it moved to Detroit.
“But the mission the entire time was to bring the first PGA tournament event here to the city,” Quicken CEO Jay Farner said recently. “The PGA was great in working with us trying to find an open spot on the calendar that was a great date. And after that five-year period of time (in D.C.) we were able to find that spot. And then the next step was to work with the DGC.
“In our minds, there was one course in the city of Detroit where this event needed to take place. It was the Detroit Golf Club. And the team at the DGC has been incredible to work with. I think we’re in lockstep with the mission, because we understand how important it is to the community, we understand what it signifies for the city.”
In April 2018, then-DGC president Pat Flynn got a historic phone call from Jason Langwell, a marketing executive who had worked on behalf of General Motors at the Buick Open and now serves at the Rocket Mortgage Classic’s executive director.
“And Jason basically said, ‘Hey, are you guys interested in hosting a tournament?’ ” Glassberg said. “And Pat was like, ‘Yeah, come on. Let’s do it.’ ”
Of course, the proposal had to be presented to the club’s membership, though Glassberg remembers about 94% of members voted their approval to negotiate a deal for the tournament.
“But we were ready,” he said. “Intellectually we were ready. Physically we felt like we were ready to undertake something like this.”
The Rocket Mortgage Classic has a four-year contract to be played at Detroit Golf Club through 2022. Even as Gilbert recovers from a recent stroke, his vision for the tournament and the city remains at the forefront of his company’s mission.
“I think for all of us, and Dan in particular,” Farner said, “bringing these type of significant events to the city helps shine a light on all the great things that are happening here, the great people that live here. And that’s really what’s most important to us.”
Farner said there has been an emphasis for the tournament to work primarily with businesses in Detroit and secondarily in Michigan. He cited a statistic from PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan that nearly 50% of tournament partners came from Detroit and nearly 25% of those partners had diverse ownership.
Likewise, DGC has its idea of how the tournament can help Detroit’s resurgence. In the club’s case, it prefers to look at the model set forth by East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, which turned a downtrodden housing-project community into a thriving one by virtue of hosting the annual Tour Championship.
“That was really the driving force for a lot of people, seeing that,” Glassberg said of East Lake. “What can we do to help this area out? I mean, it’s a beautiful area. I mean, look what (Gilbert has) done downtown. The more we can show people that the city, it’s a good city.”
Before the first tee shot is taken, before the first birdie or bogey is made, it’s hard to predict what exactly success will look like for the inaugural tournament. Then again, maybe not. Because 10 years ago there were shadows and then a long period of darkness. Now there is golf. And it’s in Detroit.
“I would just say it will be a success if the spotlight shines on Detroit and all the great things that are happening in the city, and we are part of that story,” Glassberg said. “That’s success to me. If we have an exciting event that comes down to the 18th hole, that would be success, not who wins or anything like that.”