CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Earlier this year Johnny Harris, the president of Quail Hollow Club, circulated a five-minute video to PGA Tour players.
Although Quail Hollow has been a popular stop on Tour since it first hosted the Wells Fargo Championship in 2003, the message was clear – come back to the golf course you know and love.
There was a concern among tournament officials that last year’s PGA Championship, which was played at Quail Hollow, had left some players unimpressed with the layout, which underwent a series of renovations in the years leading up to the 2017 PGA.
“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked in the video of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”
True to his word, on Tuesday as players made their way around the course to prepare for this week’s event, there was an actual lemonade stand perched on the back of the fourth tee box.
The message was clear. While few, if any, would question the outcome of last year’s PGA, which was won by Justin Thomas, it was not the golf course that made the Wells Fargo one of the circuit’s most popular events.
“The course has maybe gotten a little more criticism than maybe [Harris] is comfortable with,” said Johnson Wagner, who is a member at Quail Hollow. “He said to me that he feels like the course was set up pretty difficult for a major and guys weren’t used to that out here.”
The most glaring changes prior to the ’17 PGA were to the first, fourth and fifth holes, and they all lived up to that billing ranking as the second-, 13th- and ninth-toughest holes last August.
The sum total of those changes, along with much different conditions in August compared to May, was a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017, compared to a 72.95 average for the ’16 Wells Fargo Championship played at Quail Hollow.
The mental impact, however, went much deeper.
While most agree the changes to Quail Hollow made the course harder for the PGA Championship, opinions vary on whether the nip/tucks made the course better.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Scott Brown, who tied for 13th at last year’s PGA. “The golf course the way it was was pretty awesome. Just from hearing guys talk, the vast majority haven’t really agreed with a lot of the changes they made.”
Which explains why Harris and tournament officials were proactive in pointing out that this year’s event would be more familiar for players.
Last month’s “green sheet,” which is sent to players in advance of tournaments, said the par-4 first hole will play 495 yards this week, compared to 524 yards for the PGA Championship; and the back tee at the fourth, well that’s open for anyone who wants some lemonade. In fact, Quail Hollow will play 7,554 yards this week, compared to 7,600 yards for the PGA.
The first hole, which Brown jokingly referred to as a par 5, was the biggest concern for many players. At the PGA, the opener played to a beastly 4.388 scoring average, among the Tour’s 50 toughest holes, compared to a 3.942 average a year earlier during the Wells Fargo.
“It’s easy to mess a great golf course up. They made some great changes, I thought Nos. 4 and 5 were fine, but No. 1 is just an absolute monster hole now,” said Chris Stroud, who tied for ninth place at the PGA. “I understand why players wouldn’t want them to mess with it, but a lot of it has to do with how good players are now.”
For this week’s event the course will also revert to over-seeded perennial rye grass for the fairways and rough, and the greens and approaches will be Bermuda grass. The set up will also be in the hands of PGA Tour officials, not staff from the PGA of America, which should promote a more player-friendly layout.
“We have our own rules officials to set it up however they want, but the PGA [of America] was probably just guarding against conditions in the summer time, a little harder and a little faster, we have to give ourselves options,” Stroud said. “There’s no perfect option.”
The green sheet said rough heights will be maintained at about 2 inches and that “hole placements will also return to the traditional setup used by the Tour since 2003.”
Although Quail Hollow had to endure a few more slings and arrows than officials are accustomed to, the ’17 PGA did provide valuable feedback for future events. The course is scheduled to host the 2021 Presidents Cup, which will be played in late September, and could become an occasional major venue with the PGA Championship’s move to May beginning in 2019.
“We learned a lot about Quail Hollow and that it’s a better golf course when it’s over-seeded and the rough is shorter than it is with Bermuda and deep, nasty rough,” Wagner said.
Judging by this year’s field, which includes six of the world’s top 10 players, Harris also learned the value of guerrilla marketing and how to make lemonade out of perceived lemons.