News & Opinion

Relocated Wells Fargo event faces ‘one-off’ test

Don't mind Kym Hougham if he gets a little nostalgic for the good-old days. The longtime executive director of the Wells Fargo Championship started in Charlotte in 2003 and built the tournament into one of the must-play events on the PGA Tour.

"We were in kind of the dead zone between the Masters and the U.S. Open. We came out with a big purse – $5.6 million was big at the time – and we had a great course that the players adored," said Hougham, referring to Quail Hollow Club. "In 2007, we had 29 of the top 30 in the world. That was unheard of."

That was then; this is now. This week's Wells Fargo Championship is being held at Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, N.C. – a "one-off," as Hougham put it – to accommodate Quail Hollow's role as host of the PGA Championship in August. It's a fine course in its own right that is ranked in several top-100 course lists, but the field took a hit. A decade after scoring that "unheard of" 29 of the top 30, Hougham landed only seven of them this time. (He did woo World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who will be making his first start since a freak back injury sidelined him from the Masters.) The weaker strength of field also is reflected in the 50 Official World Golf Ranking points that will be awarded to this week's champion, down from 58 a year ago. 

Tour pros are independent contractors and make their own schedules, as long as they play the minimum 15 sanctioned events.

"Scheduling is so hard," Hougham said. "I equate it to college. You have your requirements and your electives. For years, there used to be four requirements – the majors – and the rest of the events were electives. You had four that were a given and then had 14 others to choose from. Now there are four majors, The Players, four World Golf Championships and four playoff events. All of a sudden, the requirements now are up to 13. The electives are vying for four or five spots. It's changed a lot in the last 10 years."

Count Nathan Grube, the tournament director of The Travelers Championship, among the TDs who learned from Hougham, and club president Johnny Harris, the art of pleasing the players. Wells Fargo was the first tournament to feature Mercedes-Benz courtesy cars, and the wives' outings were recognized for being over-the-top.

"There isn't a sensible man anywhere that would not play a tournament his wife wanted to play," said Joe Ogilvie, a former Charlotte regular.  

Grube visited Wells Fargo in 2007, after Travelers signed on as title sponsor in Hartford, and the trip played a role in a significant change in his player-recruiting process.

"It's relationship-building,” Grube said. “I rarely even get to asking, 'Hey, are you going to be at Travelers this year?' and that used to be what I always started off with when I was on the road. The focus instead is on getting to know their wives and girlfriends, their caddies and swing coaches and physical therapists, and agents – the whole team, so everyone wants to come back."

Hougham benefited from having Tour pros Webb Simpson and Carl Pettersson as Eagle Point members and unofficial tournament ambassadors, but they could only do so much.

Hougham didn't point fingers, but the biggest hit to his field has been the move beginning in 2007 of The Players Championship from March to May, a week after the Charlotte stop. There's a lot of talk of the Players’ returning to its March date as soon as 2019. Would that be a good thing for Wells Fargo? 

"It depends," Hougham said. "It's a zero net gain if the PGA (Championship) moves to May. We'd be a week before a major."

Next year's player recruitment should be a little easier when the tournament returns to Quail Hollow, but Hougham is confident when he says this: "You'll never see 29 of the top 30 again at an elective event."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak