News & Opinion

PGA revs up Charlotte’s sports scene

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For the longest time, Charlotte was a big small town. There were more churches than bars, and professional sports was little more than a fool’s dream.

Sure, there was NASCAR, and Charlotte has had stock-car racing since 1949. But it was a backwater sport, with limited appeal relegated to such out-of-the-way places as Rockingham, Darlington, Bristol and North Wilkesboro.

Professional golf came to Charlotte in 1969 with the Kemper Open and stayed until 1979, four years after Tiger Woods was born, leaving Charlotte to its stock cars.

Over the next 10 years, the city started to transform. The nation’s big banks began to settle in Charlotte, making the city the third-largest banking center in the country. Skyscrapers began to pierce the downtown sky, and with the arrival of this newfound wealth and attention, Charlotte became aspirational. City leaders talked about making Charlotte a “world-class city.”

To many, that means professional sports. Against the odds, businessman George Shinn led an ownership group that led to Charlotte’s getting an NBA expansion franchise in 1988. The city went berserk. The Charlotte Hornets led the NBA in attendance in their first few years in the league.

In the meantime, NASCAR exploded and expanded to cities such as Atlanta, Chicago and Las Vegas. For a number of years, stock-car racing was in vogue and the demographics of the spectators turned white collar.

Former Baltimore Colts receiver Jerry Richardson, who had made his fortune in the fast-food business, convinced the NFL to grant him an expansion franchise in 1993, the first new NFL team since 1976. The league chose Charlotte partly on Richardson’s plan to finance the stadium through the sale of permanent seat licenses, which sold out in a day.

The Carolina Panthers began play in 1995 and have been to two Super Bowls. Charlotte now had its place on the big-league map. But the one sport missing was golf, especially for a state as rich in the game as North Carolina.

This is where Johnny Harris comes in. A successful real estate developer, Harris envisioned big-time golf in Charlotte, and he believed that the Quail Hollow Club was to be the place. First designed by George Cobb in 1961 and modified by Arnold Palmer in 1986, Quail Hollow, in Harris’ mind, still wasn’t good enough to attract the PGA Tour.

He brought in Tom Fazio in 1997 for a complete redesign. The result was stunning. Harris believed he now had a course worthy of a top-flight event. He lured the Tour to Charlotte, and the first Wachovia Championship was held in 2003.

Harris’ plan all along was to hold a major championship at Quail Hollow, but he knew he had to pay his dues in the golf world. In the beginning, the Wachovia pulled out all of the stops to attract the best talent on the PGA Tour. Tournament director Kym Hougham traveled to Tour events, leaving bottles of champagne in players’ lockers, asking them to come to Charlotte.

At the Wachovia, there was concierge service in the players’ locker room, as well as dry-cleaning service, haircuts and top-notch food. Players’ wives were helicoptered to Asheville, N.C., to visit Biltmore House and taken to High Point, N.C., for furniture shopping. Even the players’ caddies had preferred status, a place to put their feet up and good food.

The players responded and lavished praise on Quail Hollow. Tiger Woods, who won in 2007, was a regular at the Wachovia, which became the Wells Fargo Championship in 2011.

The Wells Fargo is one of the most successful events on the PGA Tour, but Harris refused to be content. He wanted a major championship, and he could court only two of the four. The U.S. Open was not likely to look at a venue that hosted a Tour event, so that left Harris with the PGA Championship to pursue.

This week’s PGA Championship (tee times: http://bit.ly/2vzFZrr), however, is not Quail Hollow’s last stop. The Wells Fargo Championship returns in 2018 and 2019, but the future is uncertain beyond that. The Presidents Cup comes to Quail Hollow in 2021, and it is viewed as a warmup for the biggest prize in Harris’ eyes: the Ryder Cup.

That seems unlikely, given that the earliest an American venue is available is 2028. But no one counts Harris out, given his track record.

Charlotte is hosting this championship at the same time the city is bursting at the seams. Charlotte now has an actual skyline, the downtown area is alive with well-regarded restaurants and bars, and development in the suburbs continues at a hectic pace.

Charlotte sees itself as a major Southern city. Now, it has the major to prove it.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf