If the mission of the Golf Association of Michigan is to represent, promote, preserve, and serve the best interests of the game, then it found a winner when it gave a helping hand to the inaugural John Shippen National Invitational.
As part of the PGA Tour stop’s Rocket Mortgage Classic week (June 26-July 4) at Detroit Golf Club, the 36-hole Shippen Invitational (June 27-28) invited the nation’s top black male and female pro and amateur golfers to compete for an exemption into the Rocket, along with a pair of LPGA berths as well.
The John Shippen is named after John Shippen, Jr., who was the first American-born golf professional and also the country’s first Black golf professional. Shippen tied for fifth in the second U.S. Open in 1896 and played in four additional U.S. Opens. He was bestowed PGA of American membership posthumously in 2009.
“We feel very fortunate the team at The John Shippen Invitational and Rocket Mortgage Classic reached out to the GAM when they needed help on the administrative side with this event,” GAM executive director Chris Whitten said. “The idea right away struck our Senior Tournament Director Ken Hartmann and I as a great opportunity to reach this community. We’re always trying to grow golf and make it more accessible for all people, and this was a great way to do that. Assisting at The Shippen ties in with GAM’s partnership with the Rocket Mortgage Classic as well.”
Established in 1919, GAM is the governing body for amateur golf in the state. As a not-for-profit organization, it provides membership to more than 60,000 golfers and more than 400 golf courses; conducts 30 amateur championships; and oversees 16 USGA qualifying events.
“We conduct over 130 days of golf tournaments, all for amateurs,” Whitten said. “This is the only tournament where we interact with pros. Our great staff makes it happen and we have over 100 tournament volunteers who are really the backbone of the whole season.”
Whitten, former head men’s golf coach at the University of Michigan, served as both The Shippen Invitational starter and as a rules official.
Despite torrential rains in the Detroit area during the weekend causing Saturday’s practice round to be canceled, the Shippen was able to get to the finish line on Sunday and Monday despite some soggy conditions. The rules allowed the players to lift, clean and place their balls on the fairways, while also earning relief in flooded areas, including several bunkers.
It proved to be a challenge for Whitten’s able and experienced staff of rules officials.
“The rules don’t change,” Whitten said. “The set-up is a little different. Obviously, we have grandstands, we have TV towers, so that is different.”
Farmington Hills’ Craig Reading, a member of GAM’s Honorary Board of Governors, has been a GAM rules official since 2008 after retiring from AT&T.
“I wanted to give back to the game of golf, so I happened to be on the GAM website, and I saw a volunteer page,” he said. “I put in my information and got a call the next day. When I was in a league, our rules were a lot different, pretty simplified rules. Once you get into the rules, it’s kind of a fascinating area to deal with. There are a lot of nuances. You think there’s only like 24 rules, but inside those 24 rules there are all kinds of different variances and options.”
To say the least, Reading had to be on his toes throughout the two-day, 36-hole Shippen event.
“The front nine is so different from the back nine,” he said. “The front nine . . . a few rulings. But the back nine with all of these temporary immovable obstructions. It’s unusual for GAM officials to deal with these at our events. It was kind of a different concept for us. We had to brush up on that with those kinds of rulings before we came out here.”
For GAM official Robert Ofoli, a professor of Chemical Engineering at Michigan State, it’s about giving back in more ways than one.
Ofoli has been a GAM member nearly 20 years and a rules official for nearly 10, but he is also chairman of the Association’s Diversity and Inclusion committee.
“This tournament is really important to us because this is where we are hoping to get,” he said. “The more we get minority people playing golf at the high level . . . so this is one way we that could begin to realize that dream of making golf available to everybody. So, we are pretty excited about this opportunity.”
Ofoli, wheeling around in a golf cart, enjoyed his rounds as a rules officials during his stint at the Shippen.
“It’s a lot easier than playing the game, I don’t have any talent for the game,” Ofoli said with a chuckle. “We’re trying to work with the players and some of the bunkers where we give them relief. It’s challenging, but this is the first year that we’re doing it. We had a fairly short time to plan, so we are really looking forward to doing it here next year.”
Also lending her expertise on the course as a rules official and providing a valuable component in the clubhouse with the online scoring was GAM staff member Cynthia Pinkard, who is also a GHIN Services Associate and part of GAM’s Honorary Board of Governors.
On the starting tee, Whitten was glad to see a number of familiar faces.
“With my background in college golf and recruiting, I got to know good, young golfers all over the country, especially in the midwest,” he said. “We have Ohio State and Michigan State represented in the field – Kevin Hall (OSU), Troy Taylor and Andrew Walker (both of MSU). I’ve known their golf and followed them a long time, so it’s really fun to see them.”
Reading, meanwhile, may have summed it up best when describing his experience of volunteering his time as a part of GAM.
“I think it’s great to have Rocket Mortgage in town and in the Detroit area,” he said. “It’s been a while since we had a PGA golf tournament. I think it’s going to help the game of golf. GAM has a Foundation that supports Youth on the Course Michigan now and gives back. We hope that there’s a connection with Rocket Mortgage to give back and try and keep the game of golf growing.
“I think the Shippen is a great tournament for African Americans. I’m glad to see they got an exemption into the Rocket. It’s good to give a leg up to minorities and have them grow the game of golf. The more equal the game the more the game is going to prosper all the better.”