Detroit, a city rich in industry, music, and design, will once again host the PGA Tour this spring as touring professionals tee off on a classic Donald Ross course at the 120-year-old Detroit Golf Club as they vie for a total purse of $7.5 million during the Rocket Mortgage Classic. The tournament, which replaced the Quicken Loans National last year during its inaugural debut, kicks off Monday, May 25 and begins in earnest with competitive play on the 7,340-yard, par-72 course on Thursday, May 28 through Sunday, May 31, 2020.
While the tournament marks another important stop on the PGA Tour for the 2019-2020 season, the event—and its location—builds upon an important milestone the Rocket Mortgage Classic set for Detroit and for Michigan in 2019 as the first ever PGA Tour event in the city and the first return to the state in almost a decade. The curation of such an event—and its success, noted by the PGA Tour with three Best Of awards—brought together a collaborative group of stakeholders who worked within a tight timeline of about 11 months to create an inaugural tournament of PGA Tour competitive caliber and put a spotlight on Detroit.
Jason Langwell, executive director of the Rocket Mortgage Classic and executive vice president of Intersport, said the journey to Detroit for the Rocket Mortgage Classic started back in 2014 when Quicken Loans Inc. became the title sponsor for the Quicken Loans National hosted by Tiger Woods in Washington D.C.. Quicken Loans, which is located in Detroit, introduced Rocket Mortgage as the first comprehensive online mortgage experience in 2015. When the initial agreement concluded, there was a conversation among leadership about bringing professional golf to downtown Detroit, which serves as the headquarters for its family of companies and nearly 17,000 employees.
“They had a conversation about renewal and said: ‘Look, we really like the PGA Tour as a marketing vehicle to help build our brand and our business. We like what it stands for and what it does for the communities that is serves, think it fits for us, but if we are going to continue the relationship it has to be in Detroit, Michigan,’” Langwell said.
“In 2018 they made that decision to bring the event here. We were a little over 11 months out from the tournament date. The PGA Tour will tell you that you need about 18-to-24 months to bring a PGA Tour event together. We, as a team, as a community, had a lot less than that, but we were up for it. We knew there was a demand,” Langwell added.
With less than a year to plan and coordinate the tournament and its week-long program, Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans looked to its longtime partner of Intersport to put a team together to work on programming and facilitating partnerships not only with the surrounding hospitality and culinary industries, but also with Michigan-based, Detroit-based, and minority-owned businesses to create an event that was authentic to the city and its spirit.
“We began engaging the community and it responded. Fast forward 11 months and a bunch of what we refer to as ‘blessed stress,’ we delivered what turned out to be a great event and what we wanted, which was an event that was a spotlight on the city of Detroit,” Langwell said. “It was an incredible journey and by far one of the greatest team efforts I’ve been a part of.”
With former Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer at the helm of the volunteer force as Volunteer General Chair, the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic quickly gathered the support of 2,000 volunteers for the event; as well as gained the support of local businesses in the community as premiere sponsors—JP Morgan Chase, Cadillac, Trion Solutions, Amerisure, Lending Tree, and DTE Energy—and vendors. From the Area 313 Celebrity Challenge held on Tuesday of the tournament week—a three-team, three-hole scramble competition featuring Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Jerome Bettis, Kid Rock, and Tom Izzo, among others—to the Saks Fifth Avenue-sponsored event at Shinola Hotel for players’ significant others, and the Levelwear lounge for PGA Tour caddies, the Rocket Mortgage Classic upped the ante when it came to events and hospitality.
“We had great feedback. For a year one event, the players’ feedback focused really in two areas: what is the experience like on the golf course and then what is the experience like in the community around it? They have over 40 PGA Tour stops they can make, they choose about 20-to-25 and they evaluate it,” Langwell said. “We focused heavily on the player experience and the player family experience and they loved it.”
Langwell also noted the players loved the chance to play an old classic course like the one at Detroit Golf Club, which also features a 1916-built clubhouse designed by Albert Kahn.
“They liked the idea of going out and scoring, and they had the ability to do that here. The course is immaculately manicured and it played really well. Firm and fast is a priority of them and we were able to make this golf course firm and fast—and caught a great stretch of weather,” Langwell said.
“They don’t want stuff to be tricked up and this is a golf course that isn’t that way; it is classic in nature, it is right in front of them, and it is one, too, that I think they see the potential in,” Langwell added.
Now, as the team looks to its sophomore year, there is an intention to taking the feedback from players—as well as the community—to elevate competitive and spectator experience as well as improve authenticity and representation. From the course perspective, Langwell noted there was positive feedback on the greens, fairways, and placements, but going forward the team is looking at how to make modifications.
“We are exploring taking the rough up a little bit this coming year and over time looking at, now that we have ShotLink data—the tour provides us the data for every ball landed day by day throughout the course of the week—different bunker placements and what are things we can do to make it more fun and competitive to play,” Langwell said. “We are in that process right now for making modifications for year two and beyond.”
Langwell also noted as the team gathered input from community—which is viewed as a gift—the theme for the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic is “bigger and better.”
“What can we do to improve the experience? How can we take a great one and build from that base?” Langwell said.
A couple of the planned changes for the upcoming tournament comprise expanding its hospitality offerings, since it sold out its corporate hospitality in 2019 on a couple of different occasions; and adding a couple double-decker cabanas in Area 313 along the 14th, 15th, and 16th holes, where professionals are once again challenged to score an eagle, ace, and birdie respectively, or three-one-three, to win $313,000 with half designated for a charity of their choice and the other half allocated for a tournament charity. The 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic will also see the expansion of its Lending Tree-sponsored lounge; fan zone programming, such as the addition of an interactive, multi-sport activation; WiFi offering; Detroit-area cuisine; Detroit-based apparel and additional merchandising in terms of selection, quantity, and location on the property; and additional public grandstands and viewing decks throughout the entire golf course.
There is also a new $15, two-day ticket offered this year for Monday and Tuesday of the tournament, which Langwell noted they are quite excited about.
“We think it is the best value in Detroit sports and entertainment. For just $15, you can come out and have full grounds and practice round access on Memorial Day Monday and Tuesday,” Langwell said. “On Monday we are going to do a kids clinic with some great professionals, have a cookout on the golf course, and you can come back on Tuesday and have access to practice rounds and the best special event on the PGA Tour, which was the Area 313 Celebrity Challenge.”
In 2019 the Area 313 Celebrity Challenge earned the Rocket Mortgage Classic with PGA Tour Best Special Event award, which was one of the three total awards the tournament received. The PGA Tour also recognized it for Best Tournament Sales and with a new Fair Way Award for its diversity and inclusion efforts. Langwell noted the team was very fortunate and humbled to have walked away with the three awards and to have been nominated for a total of four in the first year of its operation.
“We are most proud of the Fair Way Award, which recognizes one PGA Tour event for their efforts in social responsibility, diversity, and inclusion. We made it a priority as an event and it is a huge priority for our sponsor Rocket Mortgage. Diversity and inclusion is core to the culture. We made an effort right out of the gate to, in everything we did, put diversity and inclusion first,” Langwell said.
“Former Mayor Dennis Archer is a great leader and was an obvious choice to come in and be our volunteer chair and he recruited an amazing team of people who were representative of our city. This was an event that needed to be that—if we are going to put a spotlight on Detroit, this needs to be an event that represents Detroit. We also made it a priority to hire Michigan-based, Detroit-based, and minority and diversity owned companies,” Langwell added.
Though excited to be the most awarded event, Langwell noted the awards are not the mission, but instead it is to make a significant impact on a number of charities in the community. The Rocket Giving Fund, a nonprofit organization managing the tournament, announced on Jan. 15, 2020 more than $1.2 million was given to nonprofits, seven beneficiaries, and Birdies for Charity recipients. Of the total $1.2 million, nearly $1.1 million was allocated to nonprofits in the city of Detroit and more than $912,000 went to its primary beneficiaries of Midnight Golf Program, Detroit Children’s Fund, Greater Palmer Park Community, First Tee of Greater Detroit, Rickie Fowler Foundation, Detroit Police Athletic League, and Detroit Golf Club Caddie Scholarship Foundation.
“The sell-outs and the awards all drive attendance, which drives dollars that can then be put back into the community to make a significant, incremental impact,” Langwell said. “That will be the legacy that is left by this event: that we leave Detroit much better than we found it.”
Text: R.J. Weick
Photography courtesy Rocket Mortgage Classic | BZA PR