Golf is a northern sport and Michigan is a northern state and golf is Michigan, as far as I’m concerned. In Michigan we “golf” and avoid “traps,” so we’re like that.
I was a kid whose dad spent 40 years with Ford Motor at a time when the auto industry was booming. I worked a summer in the River Rouge engine plant and then found caddieing and went to the University of Michigan on a caddie scholarship. It’s heartening, then, to see big-time golf back in the Motor City, or the City of Borrowing or whatever they’re calling it these days, with the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
My brother, Tom, and I learned to play in front of the tees on Mondays at Dearborn Country Club, a great Donald Ross course, in a Detroit suburb where Henry Ford thought his executives could use a golf club. We played in front of the tees because you wouldn’t want the doggone caddies to ruin the bentgrass, the pro, Faust Bianco, would tell you. So we never did play from on top of them. Faust was about 5 feet tall, had a longer backswing than John Daly and could hit his 3-wood straighter than most people hit their putts. He taught Mike Souchak putting, and we used to wait around to see Souchak, who dressed beautifully and could hit it farther than anyone on tour back then. He was Brooks Koepka with persimmon. When he’d come to get a lesson, he towered over Faust. But he listened.
All this comes back as the Rocket Mortgage happens at Detroit Golf Club, another Ross course where our caddie buddy Paul Macintosh eventually got in and took his pals once in a while. Paul’s gone now, and I thought Detroit was for a while, as far as golf goes anyway. When the PGA Championship was played at Oakland Hills in 2008, and Paddy Harrington won, we took the media bus to the course from Southfield or somewhere. En route, we passed, I kid you not, 50 For Sale, For Lease or Space Available signs on the way. Every block. Some nice places, too.
People would always tell you, well, we’ve got the Greek Market, Detroit’s not all bad. But when it comes to golf it was never bad at all. Not with Oakland and Orchard Lake and Red Run and Fox Hollow and Detroit Golf Club and on and on. All that “Pure Michigan,” Chamber of Commerce business I’m not sure of, but when it comes to golf I am. You don’t even know. Great golfers, too. Walter Hagen is from Michigan. So is Walter Burkemo. And Horton Smith. And Leo Diegel. Pete Green. Donna Caponi. Cindy Figg Currier. In Michigan, the auto executives played golf, but so did the union guys. Everybody had a league. I got some First Flight irons from a guy. I see on the Internet now that you can buy First Flight “AFL CIO” irons from back then. They’re $15.
Our uncle was one of the first Ford dealers and—so the story goes—one of the guys who convinced Henry Ford that he ought to let people buy cars on credit, which is now what the Detroit tournament is all about, I guess you could say. He belonged to the Country Club of Detroit, which has always been pretty chichi. Arnold Palmer won the U.S. Amateur there in 1954 (photo above), got him going.
By the time we started playing, Arnold was the guy. We wanted to be like him. On Mondays, when the club had an outing, my brother and I would pull out a map, unfold it and pick out one of those little green flags and drive to it with a kid named Billy Orange Juice and somebody else different every week. You couldn’t miss. They were always good courses. And that was just the public golf. Then there was the Buick Open, at Warwick Hills up near Flint, where when you said water hazard back then it meant on the golf course. Tough greens. They’d get “firm and 14” in the summer, and if you got the invite, maybe from the super or somebody, you’d love that. The Buick Open died in 2009, five years after the old Oldsmobile Scramble. You were always being asked if you wanted tickets to one thing or another back then. Some guys even caddied in them.
One summer, after I got my license, when we used to escape the family cottage in an old Mercury, we checked out a course in Frankfort, just finding it on the map. The little clubhouse was way up on what used to be a sand dune, covered in grass now of course, where you could see Lake Michigan one way and Crystal Lake the other. Everybody said Al Kaline had a place on Crystal. We pulled in the entrance, and asked the guy if we could play, and he said, "Well it’s private but it’s a Tuesday and you look like good boys, so give me 20 bucks apiece, and don’t take too long." It was called Crystal Downs. Alistair MacKenzie had designed it about the time he was doing Augusta and Cypress. He must have been on a roll. My dad said, “Geez, 20 bucks!? Couldn’t you find anything cheaper?” He didn’t play golf.
I got back to Crystal in the rain about six Novembers ago to rate it for the Golf Digest panel. Still so pure. As a Michigan student, I also got to play the “U” course in Ann Arbor, which was MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell. Ann Arbor also had Barton Hills, another great Ross course where they had the Women’s Amateur a while back, where my brother invited me to play in his member-guest. He was a lawyer for an automobile supplier and did a little better than I did. One year, I made a hole-in-one. Won a car, of course.
I like the idea that the PGA Tour is coming back to Michigan and can help Detroit come back, too. It deserves it. And way to go, Dan Gilbert, the business guru behind Rocket Mortgage, and a lot of other believers for grinding it out. The comeback is early, of course. No looking at the scoreboard yet.
I’m also glad the PGA Tour is back so all the golfers who are flying to the middle of nowhere in Kansas or someplace to play the latest, greatest, minimalist design can find out they could just fly to Detroit, rent a Ford (or whatever) and soak up some really great golf there.
They won’t regret it.