Saving Grace

Ten miles from Oakland Hills, a beleaguered 94-year-old muny has a new lease on life thanks to a cleric and his church who saw promise where, for too long, there was none

Bishop Ellis

Bishop Ellis' church bought the municipal course from the city of Detroit in 2007 for $2.5 million.

August 1, 2008

A row of pull carts and another of the gas-powered variety stand sentry next to the starter's booth inside the chain-link fence that surrounds the golf course, keeping wildlife in and undesirables out. Across Berg Road a cloud of blue smoke from a worker's lawn mower fills the air as a threesome of elderly black men talk birdies, bogeys and Obama in front of the clubhouse, a rickety relic from the early part of the 20th century.

New Rogell Golf Course is bustling with golfers of all ages and ethnicities, a clear sign that summer and urban golf endure even in the most strained economic times—at a course with a dubious past but a potentially bright future.

There is not much except the signature crowned greens with open fronts to suggest Donald Ross designed the layout set among 120 acres on the northwest side of Detroit. No plaque paying tribute to the great architect. No bust of him in the ancient clubhouse. No archival documents displayed in a trophy case. Nothing.

Just as a Model T passed from one disrespectfully irreverent hand to another would hardly bear the initial imprint of Henry Ford after years of neglect, the course has very little Ross definition. Hard times and even harder financial lines drawn by Motor City politicians have stripped the course of its dignity, tossing it into the same ground-in-need-of-repair category occupied by so many neglected munys in the United States.

Ignoring the yellow crime-scene tape that marks an unplayable area on the 17th hole—one in a laundry list of reasons New Rogell is the antithesis of the South Course at Oakland Hills, where next week the best players in the world will contest the PGA Championship—the atmosphere at New Rogell is one of restoration of that dignity. The confluence of golfing converts is indicative of a revival, led by a holy alliance between a third-generation Pentecostal preacher and a true believer in the unholy word of capitalism: If you rebuild it, they will come.

"I knew it could be a blessing in disguise and definitely a win-win situation," says Lindsey L. Mason III, New Rogell's head professional and general manager, of the city of Detroit's decision to sell the course to a local church. "Being the only black-owned course in the state of Michigan is historic, too."

The course is black-owned courtesy of Bishop Charles H. Ellis III and Greater Grace Temple, a mega-church (6,500 members) whose 20-acre complex called the City of David sits a few blocks from the course up 7 Mile Road. Bishop Ellis, a fledgling golfer, dug into the church's coffers for $2.5 million and purchased Rogell from the city in spring 2007. Last month it celebrated a first anniversary under the auspices of Heavenly Golf, a limited liability corporation that is part of Greater Grace Temple's operations.

During that initial season of ownership, play increased by nearly 5,000 rounds (from about 20,000 before the purchase), according to Mason. A great praise report for a church used to raising roses from seemingly fallow ground.

"Greater Grace Temple is a very blessed church," says Bishop Ellis, detailing the church's litany of accomplishments during 82 years of service in Detroit, 34 of them headed by his father, David Ellis, the past 12 by him. "My father was a man well ahead of his time with out-of-the-box ministries. I appreciate that so much even to this day because it allows me to move in the flow of innovative things without a lot of skepticism from the people that I need to support it—the congregates of this church. The church has a history of doing things outside the walls of this sanctuary."

Examples of Greater Grace Temple's expansive ministry are a daycare center, two K-8 charter schools begun by and still affiliated with the church, eight multi-family residences, a funeral home, an activities center across the street from the course and an 89-unit senior citizens complex adjacent to the church.

The fascinating history of New Rogell and the surrounding community reveals a convergence of forces including immigration, northern migration, urban renewal and white flight. That history belies the postcard image of tranquil tree-lined streets and red brick residences, some in disrepair, others as resplendent as the tall oaks that shade them.

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