PGA Championship: Quail Hollow built for Grand Slam moment

99th PGA Championship Gary Kellner/PGA of America via Getty Images

PGA Championship: Quail Hollow built for Grand Slam moment

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PGA Championship: Quail Hollow built for Grand Slam moment

When club president Johnny Harris sat down with Tom Fazio in 1995 to discuss the future of his beloved Quail Hollow Club, the powerful North Carolina businessman and philanthropist made it clear what he expected of the facility.

“We want a PGA Tour event to come back here and we want to bring a major championship to Charlotte,” Fazio recalled Harris telling him.

If you can reinforce your vision with that commitment, you have a chance to get what you want. But it would not have happened without Fazio and his design associates, Tom Marzolf and Blake Bickford, finding what they needed out there in the club’s 257 acres.

That included land that was being neglected and other areas that were not utilized well. More than two decades later, Fazio Inc. has reshuffled the deck at Quail Hollow in the bold manner befitting the firm’s design style.

“You go find land you’re not using and put it where you want,” Fazio said on the eve of the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow on Aug. 10-13.

Quail Hollow Club plays host to the Wells Fargo Championship on PGA Tour.

When Harris’ father led a group of 21 influential Charlotte businessmen to found the real estate club in 1959, they hired one of the South’s leading architects, George Cobb. He worked in the mold of the then-leading lights in the industry, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Dick Wilson. That meant big and bold, with tree-lined fairways and raised greens heavily defended by large, flashed-up bunkers that required aerial carries onto putting surfaces. The course opened in 1961. A popular PGA Tour event, the Kemper Open, graced the site from 1969-1979, but then the club fell into tournament desuetude until Fazio went to work fulfilling the younger Harris’ intent.

“When I got there in 1995, I saw rolling terrain with holes lined by tall, beautiful trees and a lot of space,” Fazio said. “But the greens and tees were too close, and the start and end of each nine were cramped up against the clubhouse.”

“Most importantly,” Fazio added, “we had the right guy in Johnny Harris. It’s always about the people in charge. The land is just an add-on bargain.”

Fazio and his team went to work with a master plan that has taken 22 years to fulfill. Their first move was to spread out the first and 10th tees and ninth and 18th greens to create more room for spectators and club events. Then they went about strengthening the holes, paying particular attention to the finishing stretch from the 14th hole in, culminating in the long, demanding par-4 18th that incorporated a stream down its entire left side. The work was enough to land a revived PGA Tour event starting in 2003 and draw rave reviews from players and media alike.

Three years ago Fazio’s team literally picked up the long, par-4 16th hole and moved it 50 yards to the left, bringing the fairway and green along a flank of a 15-acre lake with a large slope. With typical Fazio bravado, his team simply reshaped the entire terrain. In the process, they created a massive spectator area that overlooks the 16th green and the over-water, par-3 17th hole.

The latest – and for now, final – changes were undertaken in May to July of 2016 through golf architecture’s version of a land invasion. Extensive earthwork across the site included: regrassing of all greens; modest rebunkering and replacement of all sand with a compact white silica used at Augusta National; considerable tree work and the creation of three holes and the lengthening of another (the par-4 11th) through an inventive repurposing of existing corridors.

The 10th green at Quail Hollow.

The PGA of America, like any major organization in golf, gets nervous about major construction of new holes. But its faith in Harris and the membership proved justified. It helped that Fazio and his design team utilized three contractors simultaneously. To accelerate recovery, course superintendent Keith Wood and his staff installed 43 acres of sod rather than rely upon newly seeded turf to cover the scars.

The regrassing of the greens with Champion Ultradwarf Bermudagrass ensures ideal putting conditions through the summer heat. Existing contours on the maintained holes were reproduced within 1/10th of an inch. New greens contours were created afresh on the four new putting surfaces.

The biggest change from the last Well Fargo Championship held there in 2016 (it returns in 2018) comes on the opening holes, which used to be relatively benign. The old first and second holes have been combined into a demanding dogleg right par 4 measuring 524 yards (played as a par 5 for members). The old third and fourth holes were re-sequenced as the second and third holes, then comes a virtual splitting up of the old par-5 fifth into two holes through use of some lateral land.

The new fourth hole, a 184-yard par 3, calls for a forced carry over three front bunkers. A new fifth hole, a 449-yard par 4, was flipped to the right. And a new green at the par-4 11th allowed that hole to be stretched to 462 yards.

In look and rhythm, Quail Hollow, a par 71 measuring 7,600 yards, now has considerable resemblance to Augusta National. The contiguous golf envelope has no internal home intrusions. Towering native trees line its fairways. The property tumbles 80 feet from its high point at the clubhouse down to a creek at the lower end by the 12th and 13th holes. The front nine has water on just one hole, the par-5 seventh; water (and thus drama) are direct factors on the final five holes, starting with the drivable, par-4. 14th

Quail Hollow, ranked No. 60 on the Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list, has come to embody a paradigmatic American invention of golf architecture: the graceful, open parkland site that feels spacious, not cramped, and provides plenty of room for golf.

Harris’ vision has been realized. Charlotte got its place on the PGA Tour and now its major, along with the 2021 Presidents Cup.

(Note: This story appeared in the Aug. 7 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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