When Tom Fazio got the call from Johnny Harris in 1993 to formulate a plan to redesign Quail Hollow Club, the vision was to not only bring the PGA Tour back but to bring a major championship to Charlotte.
The major is here but what has happened to Quail Hollow? What once was a course that was so universally praised has become just plain hard. The changes that have been made in last four years have all been designed to make Quail more difficult for the best players in the world and have not necessarily made it better.
What Quail Hollow and its members have now is a stadium built purely for professional golf. We will find out this week if it can defend itself from extraordinarily low scores. But history will decide whether Quail is now a great course.
From 1969-79, the PGA Tour played the Kemper Open at Quail on a 1961 George Cobb design that was fun for the members but not a particularly good test for the pros. Fazio turned Quail Hollow completely on its head. In 1996, the new Quail Hollow opened, which included the new 18th hole, a demanding par-4 with a stream running completely down the left side of the fairway, a place where pars go to die.
What the Quail Hollow members had was a PGA Tour caliber golf course. And the pros raved. Almost to a man, the Tour players who came for the first Wachovia Championship in 2003 gushed about how they loved the new course. Quail Hollow, they said, was a traditional old-style design, not like many of the modern venues they play on Tour.
The players liked the fact that Quail was tree-lined and the holes were right in front of you. The course was not tricked up and it required all of your skill to play. David Toms won the inaugural at 10-under-par 278.
But Harris wasn’t satisfied. In 2013, he had the 16th hole redesigned where the green sits hard by the lake that borders four holes on the back nine. The new 16th was infinitely more difficult than the old one and now Quail had a demanding finishing stretch. The 16th is a par-4 of 505 yards, the par-3 17th stretches to 223 yards and the 18th is 494 yards – now called the Green Mile, arguably the most difficult finish on the PGA Tour.
But Rory McIlroy won the Wells Fargo in 2015 with a 61 in the third round and surely Harris didn’t see a 61 on the new and improved – and more difficult – Quail Hollow.
So Harris and Fazio rolled out plans to build three new holes and modify a fourth. They presented the plans to the PGA of America in January 2016 and the executives couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Construction was to begin hours after the 2016 Wells Fargo was completed. And they had a 90-day window to do it.
With three shifts of rotating crews, Quail Hollow members were playing on the new holes on Day 89. A new first hole – a par-5 for the members – will play as a 524-yard par-4. Make no mistake, this hole was not designed to give the members a gentle starting hole. It was built to strike fear in the hearts of the touring professionals right out of the gate.
The result is less a natural golf course, with ebbs and flows that require thought off the tee and into the greens. It’s more 18 separate holes in which players are required to hit it as hard as they can for the shortest approach shot possible.
The driver will be the most important club at the PGA Championship, particularly with 3 inches or so of Bermuda rough. There are three par-4s more than 500 yards and a fourth – the 18th – nearly so.
But what about the members? Those who belong to Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh have a perverse pride about playing at what might be the hardest course in America, certainly with the highest green speeds. But what fun is it for scratch players not to break 80?
The course rating by the Carolinas Golf Association from the back tees at Quail Hollow is 77.2, which means that an expert player should shoot 77 or better only about 20 percent of the time.
When the PGA Championship leaves and the Wells Fargo one day does the same, the members will be left with this creation. Is it a great course or just hard? It will up to the members to ultimately decide.