New to the scene
Detroit and the Twin Cities are ready to host new TOUR events for the next two weeks
June 25, 2019
By Helen Ross , PGATOUR.COM
The cheers were deafening as Tiger Woods stood, arms raised in celebration, on the 18th green at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club on that Sunday afternoon in August 2009.
He had just tapped in for par, beating Greg Chalmers, John Senden and Roland Thatcher by three strokes. The win was the 69th of Woods’ career and his third at the Buick Open.
Due to the sagging automotive industry, though, the tournament would be no more. For Jason Langwell, who was leading the agency that oversaw General Motors’ sports sponsorships at the time, it was one of life’s bittersweet moments.
“You didn't want it to end, but if you had to script the ending, you've got the title sponsor's ambassador, the best player in the world, winning the final event,” Langwell said. “I mean, it was very emotional, and in many ways, I think helped to provide a little closure to what was an unfortunate end.”
A decade later, Langwell, now the executive vice president of InterSport, is one of the driving forces that has brought an official PGA TOUR event back to Michigan. And while the Greater Detroit area has hosted 12 majors, most recently in 2008, this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic is the first TOUR event ever played inside Detroit’s city limits.
“Having been there in 2009 with my clients at Buick to watch that last putt drop and Tiger win, a number of us had tears in our eyes knowing that a great event was going away,” Langwell said. “Now being a part of bringing golf back to Michigan and for Detroit the first time has been something that has been very rewarding on a personal and professional level.”
Michigan isn’t the only state the TOUR returns to with a regular stop this season. Minnesota has waited even longer -- five times as long, in fact. The week after the Rocket Mortgage Classic, the 3M Open makes its TOUR debut in Blaine at TPC Twin Cities, making it a rare back-to-back debut. Add in the established John Deere Classic the following week in Silvis, Illinois, and it makes for a nice Midwest Swing.
The debut of new events will continue into the fall portion of the 2019-20 PGA TOUR season, with the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP in Japan and the Bermuda Championship. Both events will be the first regular TOUR events to be held in their respective countries.
In addition, the Houston Open is back in the fall after a one-season absence but will essentially be a new tournament, with a new host organization – The Astros Foundation – operating the event in a unique partnership with the TOUR.
Next week’s 3M Open is the first TOUR event – outside of the majors -- played in the state known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes since Frank Beard steamrolled Tommy Aaron and Hugh Inggs, winning by seven strokes, at the final Minnesota Open in the 1969 at Braemar Country Club in Edina.
In this case, the 3M Open has transitioned to the PGA TOUR with the same sponsor that for the last 17 years had been the backbone of the PGA TOUR Champions event that ran from 1993-2018. So instead of seeing the Bernhard Langers of the world, this year’s field includes reigning PGA TOUR Player of the Year and world No. 1 Brooks Koepka.
“It's a golf-crazed area, people love their golf here, they really do,” tournament director Peter Mele said. “I think they're really going to come out and really support the event. We try to tell them, ‘This is your event. Embrace it, it's going to be here for a long time, take ownership to it and be proud that you're being able to host a PGA TOUR venue.’”
While most tournament start-ups need 18 to 24 months to organize, plans for both the Rocket Mortgage Classic and 3M Open have come together in a little over a year. Langwell, for his part, remembers getting a call from Quicken Loans CEO Jay Farner and CMO Cassey Hurbis on April 20, 2018.
“There's some offers on the table,” Langwell was told. “’Let's do this. Let's put the wheels in motions and bring this to life.’”
Rocket Mortgage is a division of Quicken Loans, which until last summer was the title sponsor of a PGA TOUR event at TPC Potomac at Avenal Farms in Potomac, Maryland. When that tournament ended, there was an opportunity to bring an event to where the company is headquartered in Detroit, some 563 miles away.
Detroit Golf Club had never hosted a TOUR event. But, shortly after the Buick Open ended, the historic club, which was founded in 1899 and boasts a pair of Donald Ross courses, had been in conversations as a potential site should a TOUR event return to the city.
Tyler Dennis, the Senior Vice President and Chief of Operations for the TOUR, looked at the property and made suggestions that would make the course a viable opponent for today’s pros. Among the recommendations, length was added, and the course – which will include 17 holes of the North and one of the South – will play to 7,309 yards.
“And the good news for us, and one of the reasons we're able to pull this off in 12 months, is they made the changes,” Langwell said. “They made the changes preemptively eight years ago that we never would have had time to have made all of them.
“Not that we couldn't have had the event, but I don't think we could have had the event to the extent that we would have, and the golf that we would have, had they not gone through and proactively done those things.”
While the 70,000-square-foot clubhouse designed by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn offers plenty of room for players, caddies, members and corporate guests, the golf courses were compact. Ross – inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1977 -- wasn’t thinking about TV compounds and corporate hospitality when he laid out the courses in the early 1900s.
“The biggest challenge out of the gate was to go and create, to fund and create, an operational infrastructure that allows us to be able to bring all of our vendors and build out the campus, and a place to put it that's out of the way, and allow people to make their way around,” Langwell said. “So, we had to work with the club and build out and reinforce and widen some cart paths. We created a very large operational compound on the back side of the golf course.
“One of the good things is that we've got 36 holes here at Detroit Golf Club, 18 of which we're using,” Langwell added. “Even though it's kind of a classic, tree-lined Donald Ross, we've got those other holes that you can kind of find a home for some things, which was nice.”
While the logistical and operational issues were being solved, a base of volunteers needed to be recruited to do everything from sell concessions to carry the hand-held leaderboards in each group to operate the ShotLInk lasers that fuel live scoring – and to even empty the trash.
The members at Detroit Golf Club and people who work at Quicken Loans were the first sources to be tapped. The tournament also hired Noelle Johnston, who had helped lead the volunteer efforts at last year’s PGA Championship, and asked the popular former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer to reach out to the public as the general volunteer chairman.
The result? Well, there are a remarkable 2,000 volunteers working this week at the Rocket Mortgage Classic – and another 185 on the waiting list.
“They've done an incredible job,” Langwell said. “It speaks to their power of leadership. It speaks to, I think, the energy in the community, maybe the pent-up demand for -- there's never been a PGA TOUR event in the city limits of Detroit.
“There hasn't been golf in the state of Michigan on the PGA TOUR since 2009. So, I think all of those things, right, just created an amazing effort to bring a bunch of people together to hopefully do something special here.”
Unlike Langwell, Mele and the staff at the 3M Open, many of whom worked on the PGA TOUR Champions event that preceded it, already had a volunteer base on which to draw. At the same time, though, there was a need for nearly double that number.
Golf fans in Blaine responded, as they did in Detroit.
“That's what was encouraging early on, was the enthusiasm of the community,” Mele said. “We shut off volunteer registration around mid-April because we hit our 1,800 number, which was terrific.”
TPC Twin Cities, an Arnold Palmer design opened in 2000, also required extensive changes to make it more of a challenge for the current TOUR pros. Tom Lehman, who was a player consultant on the original layout, spearheaded the work along with Steve Wenzloff.
“I think they did work on almost every hole except for the par 3s,” Mele said. “Either the length of the holes with some new tees, or they reshaped the fairways to make them narrower and a little more challenging for the TOUR players.”
The renovations began last August after Kenny Perry won the final 3M Championship.
“As soon as Monday came along, they brought the work crews out here, and I think they had three crews working simultaneously,” Mele said. “… They did an amazing amount of work, both in scope and in quality in such a short amount of time, to get it all in before the winter set in.”
How severe was the winter? Well, Mele remembers one week when the high temperature never got above 15 below. And when you’re looking at a 70-day build-out, both the 3M Open and Rocket Mortgage Classic are backed into an April timeframe when the Midwest could still be thawing out.
“Like all PGA TOUR events, you've got to have Mother Nature on your side a little bit,” Langwell agreed.
Mele said Hollis Cavner and his Pro Links Sports group, which previously managed the 3M Championship and remains involved this year, have provided invaluable support. He credits Cavner with recruiting successes that will include the likes of Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Jason Day – very high-profile names for a first-year event.
In terms of sales and marketing, Mele acknowledges he was hamstrung by having no imagery to show potential sponsors what a chalet looks like or how the venue presents during the tournament.
“You always try to look back and say, ‘Let's get some good crowd shots from last year,’” Mele said. “Well, they don't exist. ‘Let's get some player shots from last year.’ Well, they don't exist. ‘How about some venues?’ Nope, they don't exist either.
“That was probably the single biggest challenge I think we've had.”
Even so, Mele is satisfied with sales to date.
“I think we're really in a good spot right now and are really looking to realize some really significant growth on the corporate side next year,” Mele says.
Rocket Mortgage Classic hole overview at Detroit Golf Club
Branding – or rebranding in the case of the 3M Open – has been crucial to both tournament’s success. The sports landscape in both cities is crowded with MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA teams, so there’s plenty of healthy competition for fans.
The Rocket Mortgage Classic has created unique hospitality area called “Area 313” – which is Detroit’s area code -- around the 14th, 15th and 16th holes, a par 5, 3 and 4, respectively. The first player to score 3-1-3 on the holes will trigger a charitable donation of $313,000 – half of which goes to his charity and the other half to the tournament foundation.
Langwell calls “Area 313” the Rocket Mortgage Classic’s version of Amen Corner. And it’s just another way to focus on a city that is on the rise again.
“It's an amazing opportunity to shine a spotlight and feature what we, as Detroit residents, already know, and that's Detroit is a great place to work,” Langwell said. “It's a great place to live. It's a great place to play. …
“I think all Detroiters kind of realize that it's a really amazing opportunity to come out and showcase, again, what we already know.”
In Minnesota, Mele and his staff have worked diligently to get fans to understand that the 3M Open isn’t the same tournament that preceded it at TPC Twin Cities. New hospitality venues like the craft beer garden and wine grove, as well as a Zack Brown concert have been created to further set the event apart.
“People would say, ‘Oh, been there, I've been going there for years,’” Mele recalled. “And I'd say, ‘Well, no, you really haven't. This is a brand-new event so, you ought to give it another shot.’”
To get its message out, the 3M Open started advertising as early as last fall. Mele and other tournament officials spoke at Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club meetings. They did interviews on radio and television. They talked to newspaper and magazine reporters.
After all, not every city in the United States hosts a TOUR event.
“We want them to embrace it as their own event,” Mele said. “And 3M, they've made a tremendous seven-year commitment.”
Indeed, year one of the 3M Championship is just a building block. Mele expects significant growth in years to come and the fan base to increase. But he’s confident those who come to TPC Twin Cities next week won’t be disappointed.
“I'm not sure what they're expecting, to be honest,” he said. “What they're going to get is they're going to get a heck of a show.”