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New game in town

In back-to-back weeks, the PGA Tour debuts events in Detroit and Minneapolis, where attracting players and creating buzz present challenges and opportunities
June 24, 2019

The shakeup of the 2019 PGA Tour schedule has created challenges for tournaments and players alike. It also has created openings. These next two weeks feature new events in markets that have been home to major championships and senior golf but now are stepping up to the major leagues.

This week, Detroit gets its first taste of a regular tour event with the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club. The $7.3 million event is sponsored by Quicken Loans, which for the last few years was title sponsor of the tournament Tiger Woods hosted outside Washington, D.C. Immediately behind it is another newbie, the $6.4 million 3M Open at TPC Twin Cities in suburban Minneapolis, not to be confused with the 3M Championship, a PGA Tour Champions event held at the same site the last 18 years.

Though Minneapolis hosted the Ryder Cup in 2016 at Hazeltine National, site of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship that ended Sunday, it last saw a PGA Tour event in 2009 when Y.E. Yang upset Woods in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. Detroit’s last taste of tour golf was the 2008 PGA Championship and the 2004 Ryder Cup, both at Oakland Hills. The area also held the Buick Classic up the road in Grand Blanc until 2009. Meanwhile, the Senior Players Championship was held in nearby Dearborn from 1990-2006.

Both events have drawn decent fields despite the unknowns that go with inaugural outings. The Rocket Mortgage Classic has Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler (a Rocket Mortgage spokesman), Bubba Watson, Ernie Els and new U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland. Commitments to the 3M Open include Brooks Koepka, Jason Day, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed.

Not a bad start for either when you’re selling promises and ideas to the game’s top players, many of whom tend to enter the same tournaments every year. They have their favorite courses and locales, and, of course, purse size matters, too.

“Tour players have 46 places they can call their home each year and they choose 20 or 25 of them to make their home,” said Jason Langwell, executive director of the Rocket Mortgage Classic. “They want to know why they should go to a new place to call home for one of those weeks. It’s a challenge.”

Courtesy of Detroit Golf Club

In Langwell’s case, he has the recently upgraded North Course of Detroit Golf Club, originally designed by Donald Ross and located close to downtown. “None of them have played here, but they all have played a Donald Ross course, so they know what to expect,” he said. “We also offer a downtown experience—a revitalized downtown experience that is unique compared to most tour stops that are mostly in suburbia.”

It didn’t hurt having Fowler talk up the tournament, though the five-time tour winner insists his role was minimal. “I actually haven’t done much, really,” Fowler said. “It’s mostly been just answering any questions and encouraging guys to come, but I wouldn’t say I recruited anyone.”

A tour event in Detroit became a possibility when Quicken Loans became title sponsor of the Quicken Loans National. While enjoying his involvement in the D.C. tournament, Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert was determined to bring the tour to the city where his company is headquartered. Similarly, 3M is based in Minneapolis. Yep, follow the money.

But that’s where the similarities end.

“We’ve had 13 months to put this together when the tour said you need 18-20 months,” Langwell said. “Unlike 3M, we had no ticketing infrastructure, we had no program in place to segue into. The scale is different for them obviously, but they had a base to build from [after being a long-time PGA Tour Champions venue]. We did not. We had to build awareness and consensus, build our brand from scratch. We needed to find that 25th and 26th hour in the day to make it happen.”

For Peter Mele, tournament director of the 3M Open, the challenge has been about making everything bigger, including the golf course. The TPC Twin Cities, originally designed by the late Arnold Palmer, has been given a serious upgrade at the hands of Minnesota native Tom Lehman, who oversaw what was called “a competitive enhancement project” in which the par-72 layout was stretched from 7,164 yards to more than 7,500 yards with par reset at 71.

Mele, the former tournament director of the Northern Trust, the FedEx Cup playoff event in New York area, never previously had to recruit a field. So that was a new twist in his job description. That fits in with the theme of the 3M Open.

“One of our big challenges is communicating that this is not the 3M Championship, this is the 3M Open, this is the PGA Tour,” Mele said. “We want it to have a different look and feel when fans step on site. We want to have a great show and give them a lot of things to get engaged in.”

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And because the first round of the tournament lands on July 4, Mele hopes to provide a special experience for players, a real celebration that goes with the national holiday, including a concert on Friday night featuring the Zach Brown Band.

One intangible 3M Open has in its favor is Hollis Cavner and his Pro Links Sports, which operates the event as well as others, including the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte. “Hollis has a reputation for running a quality event with quality amenities for players and caddies and their families when they come to his events,” Mele pointed out.

Another is the community, which appears ready to welcome the game’s top talent. “There is tremendous excitement here,” Mele said. “We realized that early on when we opened our volunteer registration. To our amazement, we hit our numbers in mid-April. Usually you need 800-900, but we needed 1,800 for new event. That was an indication of the enthusiasm this event was generating. We were all thinking there’d be a lot of excitement. But you never know until you have the tournament.”

Likewise, Langwell said ticket and corporate hospitality sales for the Rocket Mortgage Classic are exceeding expectations. Tournament week begins with practice rounds on Monday. Apparently, he found enough 25th hours in the day to have everything in place.

“We feel ready. A few finishing touches and edges to smooth, but we feel pretty good given the preparation time,” he said. “The euphemism we use around here is ‘blessed stress.’ It’s stressful to put anything together for the first time but we’re blessed to have it.”