High Praise for Quail Hollow


Quail Hollow ChampionshipCHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s not Magnolia Lane, but from the moment one wheels onto the property off Gleneagles Road everything about the place screams Augusta National, from the white guardhouse tucked into a sea of foliage to the rolling greens that Stimp on the white knuckle side of high anxiety.

Bobby Jones never graced Quail Hollow’s grounds but if you look hard you can see Jones sipping an old fashion on the modest porch.

“Wait until you see it,” gushed Jay Williamson to a Quail Hollow first-timer earlier this week.

Quail Hollow’s kinship with Augusta National is distinctly by design. Of the club’s 324 members 14 have a coveted members green jacket in the closet. It is part of the charm, and the curse, of the place.

When Quail Hollow joined the PGA Tour fold in 2003 it was an instant classic, attracting a major-championship quality field to a major-championship quality venue with every bell and whistle the modern pro has come to expect.

For all those disgusted to distraction by the impending “fifth major” debate, the best way to sum up Quail Hollow is Grand Slam Lite. Check the champion’s board, Quail Hollow’s winners are a who’s who collection of major players – Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, David Toms, Jim Furyk.

“I would say it’s better than a major because it’s easier to get around,” said Dale Lynch, Geoff Ogilvy’s swing coach who has seen his share of major venues.

With high praise, however, come high expectations. And at Quail Hollow it seems those expectations may have exceeded its status as the biggest fish in a frenzied PGA Tour pond.

On paper Quail Hollow is stone-cold Tour lock with a sponsor, albeit a largely absentee check book, that is on the board through 2014, a stellar course and a tony date on the docket.

But clear, sunny skies for Thursday’s first round and beyond belie an approaching imperfect storm of major ambition and political opportunism.

Officials renamed the event the Quail Hollow Championship last year, but they may as well have dubbed it the Barney Frank Open. Frank, the outspoken congressman from Massachusetts, publically blasted TARP-recipient Northern Trust for what he viewed as corporate extravagance during last year’s Tour stop in Los Angeles. So when Wells Fargo purchased Wachovia, Quail Hollow’s original sponsor, the financial giant kept writing the checks but did so from afar.

Yet Wells Fargo’s duck-and-cover act is less of a linchpin in the Tour’s future at Quail Hollow than Johnny Harris, the omnipotent president of the club.

“We have a contract through 2014. We look forward to having the Tour here until then, and then we’re going to look at all our alternatives,” Harris told the Charlotte Business Journal this week.

And as warm and fuzzy as that endorsement sounds, Harris’ follow up was even chillier. Asked if he felt it was necessary to have an annual Tour stop he said, simply, “wouldn’t think so.”

Harris planned to meet with commissioner Tim Finchem this week. But the more important meetings may likely come in the next few months between Harris and officials from the PGA of America.

Sources close to the situation say the club, and Harris, want to host a Ryder Cup but will likely need to host a PGA Championship first. On the competitive calendar the next available PGA is 2017 and the next open date for a U.S. Ryder Cup is 2024.

With that kind of Grand Slam glory on the hook there would be little need, or open seating for the matter, for a yearly Tour stop. And, in a twisted way, Tour types seem to be writing their own ticket out of town.

Almost to a man, the reviews of Quail Hollow leave little room for ambiguity or hyperbole.

“If we all turned up here and had a U.S. Open or a PGA it would feel like a normal U.S. Open or a PGA,” said Ogilvy, three shots off the lead after Round 1. “It does feel like a major kind of place.”

Paul Goydos, who is tied with Ogilvy at 4 under, offered the ultimate player endorsement: “The green speeds are Augusta-like if not even quicker.”

Although some sources estimate there is a 60 percent chance the Quail Hollow Championship is headed for a far-to-premature swan song when its agreement with the Tour is up in 2014, one Tour veteran mused late Wednesday on the practice putting green that with a PGA or Ryder Cup the club gives up control, while with a Tour event Harris & Co. call many of the most-meaningful shots.

But does the membership, specifically Harris, want a yearly Tour stop?

“That’s a good question,” the veteran allowed.

Without question, Quail Hollow would be up to whatever major challenge they wish to tackle. But for Tour types the question remains, at what cost?