by Greg Johnson
GROSSE POINTE FARMS – Tom Sullivan is excited for the 107th Michigan Amateur Championship next Tuesday through Saturday at his club – the Country Club of Detroit.
“It will be great to get a chance to play in it, and to see what happens when all the great golfers from Michigan are here will be special,” he said.
Tom and two of his sons, Patrick and Tommy, played in last year’s Michigan Amateur at Egypt Valley Country Club in Ada. All three made it through sectional qualifying to be in the starting field, which was a rarity in Michigan golf.
Patrick made it through stroke play to match play as the No. 4 seed of 64. Ryan Johnson, the 2015 champion, ended his run, and eventually Tom Werkmeister of Grandville won his second Michigan Amateur title.
Tom and Patrick were both exempt players for this year’s championship and will be part of this year’s starting field of 156 golfers, determined mostly through 15 sectional qualifiers held across the state this spring.
“I think the club will do a great job of hosting,” Tom said. “We have a great course a lot of people haven’t played before.”
Jake Kneen of White Lake, the winner Thursday of the Michigan Open Championship at Grand Traverse Resort, has played the Country Club of Detroit course once – in May of 2017 in U.S. Open Sectional qualifying.
“I have good memories there because I played well,” he said. “I really like the golf course. It’s great. Hopefully I can go back there and use those good vibes and play well all week.”
Kneen is a former Michigan Junior Amateur champion, and won that title in match play, but he hasn’t fared so well in that format the last few years in the Michigan Amateur.
“Hopefully I can change that,” he said. “I feel really confident in my game right now. It is a totally different format from the Michigan Open, and the golf course is totally different. I look forward to it. It’s one of the tournaments I wanted to play again as an amateur before I turn pro.”
Werkmeister, the defending champion is not in the field. He turned professional this spring at age 50 and has status on the PGA Tour Champions. He announced those plans well before last year’s amateur.
Six other former champions are in this year’s field, including Ryan Johnson of New Boston (2015), Henry Do of Canton (2014), Andrew Chapman of Traverse City (2013), Jimmy Chestnut of Royal Oak (2008), Greg Davies of West Bloomfield (2006) and two-time champion Randy Lewis of Alma (1992 and ’99).
In its history the Country Club of Detroit has been considered one of the nation’s top golf courses and a perfect place to determine champion golfers.
“Amateur golf has always been part of our mission as a club,” Craig Cutler, the club’s general manager said. “Our members have recommitted themselves to the care of the course, the clubhouse and grounds, and there has been a reconnecting with our mission, a decision to get back out there because the club has always believed in amateur athletics and hosting amateur golf championships is part of that.”
In 2016 the United States Golf Association announced the club had been selected to host the 2020 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship. It will not be the first USGA national championship at Country Club of Detroit, though it will be the first in 64 years. The 1954 U.S. Amateur Championship was hosted by the club, and it holds a special place in golf history.
The late Arnold Palmer, at the time living in Cleveland and working as a paint salesman after three years in the U.S. Coast Guard, grabbed the notice of the golf world for the first time by winning that summer at Country Club of Detroit. Later that same summer he turned professional and forged his incredible golf legacy.
“That victory was the turning point in my life,” Palmer said in reflection years later. “It gave me confidence I could compete at the highest level of the game.”
George Forster, Jr., the head golf professional at Country Club of Detroit, feels Palmer’s win in 1954 at Country Club of Detroit should be included among the top moments in golf history.
“Arnold Palmer opened up the game to others who had never experienced it before,” he said. “I believe him winning the Amateur in ’54 should be talked about with Bobby Jones winning the “Grand Slam,” Ben Hogan coming back from his car crash, those kind of top five moments. I think Arnold’s win belongs in there, not because it happened at Country Club of Detroit. It was the tournament that Arnold felt changed him forever, and then he changed golf forever.”
Forster is a golf historian, and the son of long-time Philadelphia area golf professional George Forster. Before coming to Country Club of Detroit two years ago worked he worked for eight years at the prestigious Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., not-so-ironically the site of Jones winning the 1930 U.S. Amateur and wrapping up his coveted “grand slam,” and Hogan winning the 1950 U.S. Open just 16 months after being injured in a horrific car accident.
He said Country Club of Detroit at one time it its history was considered a platinum top-50 course in the United States, and that restoration work of the original H.S. Colt design by award-winning Michigan-based architect Tom Doak in recent years has returned the course to an elite level. It now plays to a maximum of 7,100 yards, and Ross Miller, the superintendent, and his staff maintain elite playing conditions.
“Over the last 20 years the club got away from that part of its mission, and we never let raters in and didn’t have the right people seeing the golf course,” Foster said. “We believe this course should be spoken about with Oakland Hills, Merion, Shinnecock, the great facilities in golf.”
Ken Hartmann, senior director of rules and competition for the Golf Association of Michigan, concurs.
“It’s one of my favorites to set up to be honest,” he said. “It’s a great old style classic course, one of the best in Michigan easily. It is an awesome golf course – another one where you have to hit the ball to the right part of the greens, and the back nine there has four par 4s that are so tough. It’s a classic. Like Oakland Hills. It’s that kind of golf course.”
Country Club of Detroit has hosted the Michigan Amateur five times, but four of those were between 1908 and 1914 and the last was in 1929. The club also hosted the first Michigan Women’s Amateur in 1914 and has been the site of that championship five times as well with the last of those being in 1949.
In more recent years, GAM and USGA qualifiers administered by the GAM, have been held at the club. Also, John D. Standish of the historic Standish golf family, a president emeritus of the GAM, has been a long-time member, and he annually presents the John D. Standish Award to standout Evans Scholars in Michigan.
“It’s a great club with great people, and the improvements to the course are outstanding,” Sullivan said. “It’s going to be an exciting week.”
As with all GAM championships spectators are welcome and admission is free.