(CBS Detroit) — The Rocket Mortgage Classic, a relative newcomer to the PGA Tour, already has a storied history. Its host, the Detroit Golf Club, is among the Tour’s oldest courses. Inaugural winner Nate Lashley, then ranked 353rd, slipped into the field last year as an alternate, only to win by a whopping six strokes. A once-a-century pandemic forced the postponement of this year’s tournament from late May to early July. What could possibly happen next?
The Rocket Mortgage Classic looks to add another chapter this week, as the PGA Tour enters its fourth event since returning from a three-month COVID-19 hiatus. Fans are once again barred from attending. Social distancing and various other safety measures remain in place and have become just another part of the tournament experience. So too have announcements of players contracting or being exposed to the virus. Harris English is the fifth player to test positive since the Tour’s return. He withdrew from the tournament Monday.
Virus aside, this week’s event feels a little more like a non-major than the first three. The Rocket Mortgage field boasts its fair share of talent, but absent are many of the stars who shook off the rust at the Charles Schwab Challenge, RBC Heritage and Travelers Championship. Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and last week’s winner Dustin Johnson are all taking the week off, as are Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka.
Webb Simpson (ranked sixth), who won the RBC Heritage but sat out the Travelers after being exposed to the virus, is the highest-ranked player teeing it up. Patrick Reed (seventh) and Bryson DeChambeau (10th) join him as the only other top-10 players in the field. Reed tied for fifth at last year’s Rocket Mortgage, and DeChambeau is riding a streak of six straight top-10 finishes dating back to February.
“A good thing that Bryson is doing is he finds a way to adapt,” according to CBS Sports lead golf analyst Nick Faldo. “And that’s very important. I think he said it himself, if I want to be the best player in the world, I’ve got to find a way playing well on courses that, on paper, don’t suit me. Hilton Head was a big example of that, where you don’t need a driver. That’s pure for him.”
Lashley will be defending his storybook win from a year ago, when he shot a 63 on Thursday to grab the lead and then another 63 on Saturday to solidify it. It was his first PGA Tour win in a career that includes tragedy, suffering and finally triumph. Lashley lost his parents and girlfriend in a 2004 plane crash; they were returning home from one of his tournaments. He never really recovered from their deaths, even going so far as to quit golf for a time. His win marked a milestone in what was then a 15-year journey.
Much of last year’s final leaderboard is also returning. That includes runner-up Doc Redman, who shot 19-under, and Wes Roach and Rory Sabbatini, who tied for third at 18-under.
Whoever grabs the trophy this year will have to go low. And the putter may be the key. “If you’re going to create a lot of chances, which most of the guys can do, then it’s who finishes it off, who putts really well,” Faldo points out. “That’s obviously very key. And you can’t be scared of shooting 20-under-plus.”
“There’s there’s quite an art to feeling comfortable on super-low rounds,” says Faldo.
While the field doesn’t match those of the previous three events, it compares favorably to last year’s Rocket Mortgage Classic. And that field lit up Detroit Golf Club in its first PGA Tour appearance. The Club’s North Course, a par-72 extending to 7,334 yards, will be the site of this year’s tournament as well. It was updated for the inaugural event in 2019 and will reportedly feature taller rough to temper low scores this year. But good weather (forecasts show sunny skies and temperatures in the low 90s through Sunday) should attract the birdies once again. Three different holes yielded birdies over 40 percent of the time last year.
“If they can get the greens firm, that would be a huge difference,” notes Faldo. “That would get rid of 10 shots. Ten-under would win it, if the greens are firm, whereas 20-under might not win it if the greens are soft.”
The North Course’s front nine, lined with trees, is a little more challenging than the back nine. The opening hole, a 397-yard par-4, tees off near the base of a bent oak that marked a Native American trail between Detroit and Saginaw. The fourth hole, the course’s longest, extends to 635 yards, though the green can be reached in two shots.
On the back nine, the 14th, 15th and 16th holes form ‘Area 313.’ The series of holes provides some scoring opportunities and an opportunity to raise money for charity. The series starts with a 555-yard, par-5, followed by a 160-yard par-3 and a 446-yard par-4.
The classic Donald Ross design is somewhat unique to the PGA Tour. But it also offers up an abundance of scoring opportunities for today’s players. “Old-school [courses] unfortunately don’t have a lot of defense against these guys,” says Faldo.
>>STREAM: Rocket Mortgage Classic
Here are the favorites:
Bryson DeChambeau (7-1)
DeChambeau might be playing the best golf on the PGA Tour right now. He initially attracted attention for bulking up during the coronavirus hiatus and adding length off the tee. (He’s currently second in shots gained: off-the-tee.) But the rest of his game remains strong, as evidenced by three top-10 finishes. He contended at the Charles Schwab Challenge right up to the end and has to be considered a favorite in a lesser field.
Webb Simpson (11-1)
Simpson returns after being exposed to COVID-19 and withdrawing from the Travelers. He won the RBC Heritage the week before, separating himself from a packed leaderboard with five birdies on the last seven holes and setting the Harbour Town scoring record. It was his second win of 2020; the other came at the Waste Management Phoenix Open back in February.
Patrick Reed (16-1)
Reed finished tied for seventh in his return to action at the Charles Schwab. It was his fourth top-10 showing in a season that includes a February win at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He also tied for fifth at last year’s Rocket Mortgage, finishing the weekend at 17-under. Reed is quite capable of going lower than that, especially if he performs with the putter.
Watch Faldo Formula – Mind. Body. Swing Saturday, July 4, 2:00 – 2:30 PM ET on CBS.
Watch the Rocket Mortgage Classic Saturday, July 4 and Sunday, July 5, 3:00 – 6:00 PM ET on CBS.