Modern-day Charlotte, the commercial hub of North Carolina’s Piedmont region, is nicknamed the “Queen City”—an appropriate moniker, although not exactly as originally intended. Much as its namesake, Queen Charlotte, curtsied to England’s King George III 200 years ago, Charlotte has always been subservient to Atlanta, its “King of the South” neighbor located a few hours down Interstate 85.
Lately, though, Atlanta has battled a bout of post-Olympic depression, while Charlotte’s profile (and its skyline) continues to rise. A mainstay on numerous best-places-to-live lists, Charlotte has emerged as a desirable place to make and manage money. The city ranks as the second-largest financial center in the country, trailing only New York City in bank dollars. Nearly two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies have offices here.
Today, another major conglomerate is making its presence felt in Charlotte: The PGA Tour brings its inaugural Wachovia Championship to the Quail Hollow Club the second week of May. Quail Hollow hosted the tour’s Kemper Open from 1969-79, but—thanks to a 1997 remake by Tom Fazio—today’s course is much different from the one on which Tom Weiskopf won three times, including a 1971 playoff victory over Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Dale Douglass. Yet it remains a venue tailor-made to challenge the world’s best golfers, at a club that was born to host a world-class event.
On April 13, 1959, a handful of members at venerable Charlotte Country Club met to vent their frustration over the club’s expanding golf membership, which was logjamming Saturday-morning tee times at the Donald Ross-designed golf course. Insurance executive James J. Harris proposed starting a new club on a prime parcel of land he had inherited from his father-in-law, former North Carolina Gov. Cameron Morrison. After first considering a number of other options—including moving Charlotte CC to Harris’ land—the group decided to proceed with the new club.
Enter Arnold Palmer, owner of Arnold Palmer Cadillac in Charlotte and a close friend of Harris. The King had often suggested that the PGA Tour would favor a Charlotte entry on its schedule. “You build the right golf course,” Palmer promised, “and I’ll make sure it gets a tournament.”
Thus Quail Hollow Club was born. It was cultivated on 257 acres of a former dairy farm in what would emerge as Charlotte’s silk-stocking district. George Cobb, who had just finished work on the par-3 course at Augusta National, was handpicked to design Quail Hollow, completing the job in late spring of 1961.
The original concept was a men’s-only golf club with 225 members, including 90 charter members. But Harris’ wife put her foot down, telling her husband that club memberships should include all family members, regardless of age or gender. Construction on a swimming pool began shortly thereafter.
For his part, Palmer delivered on the promise of a tour event. After one year at Massachusetts’ Pleasant Valley Country Club, the Kemper Open came to Quail Hollow in 1969. Palmer, who had won at Pleasant Valley, failed to defend his title—Dale Douglass beat Charles Coody by four shots—but he did buy a home on the 15th hole and accept an honorary club membership. In the mid-1980s, Palmer would don his course architect hat at Quail Hollow, performing modifications to a handful of holes.
Much as it did when the club was born four decades ago, the present-day Quail Hollow membership roster represents a veritable Who’s Who of golf-loving CEOs and executives from Charlotte’s largest corporations. Names like John Belk (Belk department stores), Stuart Dickson (Harris Teeter), Bev Dolan (Textron) and Hugh McColl (Bank of America) are engraved on nameplates in the stately men’s locker room, a place where members gather frequently, whether for golf or just male bonding.
Those locker room discussions typically are led by Quail Hollow’s convivial president, Johnny Harris, son of club founder James J. Harris. A member at many of America’s finest clubs (including Cypress Point, Seminole, Pine Valley and Augusta National), Harris has endeavored to bring the best of those institutions to the club he loves most.
“This is a golf club, plain and simple,” Harris drawls. “We don’t discriminate against anyone but slow players.”
Indeed, the only rule at Quail Hollow is found on a sign posted at the 10th tee. It reads: “Slower players on the course will let others go through regardless of the size of the group.” A collection of members known as the “Mo’s” (short for “Morons”) plays Thursday through Sunday in groups as large as seven, each in his own cart, always in less than three hours. Saturday games begin with a box of fried chicken and end, 27 or 36 holes later, with cocktails in the locker room.
Harris runs Quail Hollow as a benevolent dictatorship. When the club decided to build a comprehensive, $750,000 short-game area, he made sure the board didn’t assess the entire membership. “Those of you who are gonna use it,” Harris announced one night to a gathering of Quail Hollow’s most ardent players, “need to step up and pay for it.”
Harris also marshaled the most recent transformation of the club’s golf course, bringing in Fazio to remake Cobb’s original layout, which was long, wide and sporty, but fairly nondescript. Fazio added teeth to the course, tightening fairways, altering tee boxes, flashing bunkers and bringing undulation, false fronts and elevation to green complexes.
Quail Hollow (6,330 yards from the member tees, 7,300-plus for the pros) encourages players to shape their drives and aim carefully at greens, always considering slopes and hole locations. Length is a weapon here, to be sure, but precision and strategic shotmaking are ultimately rewarding for pros and amateurs alike.
Several risk-reward par-5s—Nos. 7, 10 and 15 in particular—offer the potential for low numbers as well as the risk of bogey or worse. And the par-3s provide no breather: No. 6, for example, can be stretched as long as 248 yards for the Wachovia Championship.
The return routing of the back nine is designed to heighten the drama. No. 14 is the shortest par-4 on the course, but one that can’t be overpowered. Negotiating it requires considerable finesse, given the assortment of bunkers and a lake that combine to protect shorter, more aggressive lines of play.
The final three-hole loop comprises the greatest challenge. Because of a pinched landing area, the par-4 16th is an extremely demanding driving hole; the difficulty is compounded by its length, a meaty 485 yards. Seventeen, arguably Quail Hollow’s signature hole, is another long par-3 that measures 210 yards over water to a picturesque island green. Water surrounds all but one side of the putting surface and offers little bailout room for those wishing to play it safe.
The finishing hole at Quail Hollow should make for great theater, literally. This long par-4 traverses 480 yards along a meandering stream, the left side of the hole rising boldly toward the grand clubhouse in stadium-like fashion—an ideal conclusion for a tournament venue.
The Wachovia Championship pays a purse ($5.6 million) that ranks just below the majors and compares favorably with biggies like The Memorial and The International. “We wanted to bring the world’s best players back to Charlotte,” says general tournament chairman Mac Everett, a Wachovia senior executive VP and a club member since 1980. “We want them to enjoy it, and to keep coming back. It’s gonna be more than a golf tournament; it’s gonna be an entertainment experience.”
Of course it is—what else would you expect from a club that Arnold Palmer preordained for greatness?