Mike Purkey: Friends can be competitors and vise versa

Justin Thomas, who won the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, competes with good friends Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler on the PGA Tour. (Jeff Siner photo)

On an episode of “The Haney Project” on Golf Channel in 2009, Charles Barkley visited Hank Haney’s house and the two of them started shooting pool. Haney squeaked out a win in the first game and in the second game, Barkley ran the table without allowing Haney a shot, looking like he had done that kind of thing before.

“It’s not personal,” Barkley said with a huge grin. “It’s just competition.”

When Justin Thomas came off the 18th green in the final round of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, he was greeted by Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, who had hung around after they finished to see if Thomas could win his first major championship.

Most PGA Tour players would have already hopped aboard their private jets and headed home, shooting their friend a text if he closed the deal. These young players are a little different.

After Thomas won the Dell Technologies Championship on Monday, Spieth was talking to a gaggle of reporters when Thomas walked by. Spieth interrupted the interrogation to walk over and give Thomas a hug, offering his congratulations. He came back and finished the interview session.

Some in the game don’t particularly like the fact that Spieth, Thomas, Fowler and others can be such good friends while they’re supposed to be competing ferociously with them. They think it harms the value of the competition.

You don’t have to hate your opponents to want very badly to beat them. But these young players can fight with 100 percent effort on the golf course, separating the personal from the competitive.

“I mean, I’m probably more excited than anything to get home and see one of my roommates, Tom Lovelady, who just got his PGA Tour card,” Thomas said after winning the Dell Technologies Championship, his fifth victory of the 2016-17 season. “He gets home Tuesday night, and we’re going to have a little dinner, celebrate on Wednesday. I’m more excited to see him and just tell him congrats than I am to celebrate my own victory.”

And if that doesn’t fit the description of selfish, narcissistic individual athletes that you’re accustomed to, welcome to the new normal in professional golf. But that doesn’t mean these players are 100 percent pure in their good wishes for their friends.

“I still get jealous,” Thomas says. “Any time any of my friends win and I don’t, I’m extremely happy for them, I’m pumped for them, I’m excited but I’m jealous. I wish I had three majors right now (like Spieth). I mean, I’m obviously pleased with one but I wish I had three.”

Make no mistake, this is not the first instance of close friends competing with one another on the PGA Tour. It goes back as long as there’s been a Tour. But there have been no other players who make their friendship as public as these guys do, sharing tweets and Instagram posts of their spring break trips with the world.

Spieth, Thomas and Fowler are the most visible of the friends, but Smylie Kaufman and others are included in this group. And it’s just a happy coincidence that they played junior golf against each other, played summer competition against each other and college golf against each other. They have just chosen not to go their separate ways once they came to the PGA Tour.

“I just think we grew up together,” Spieth said. “I think that happens with the people that — I mean, you grow up and you watch each other work from when you’re 14 years old. We roomed together when we were 14 years old. (Thomas is) one of my best friends in the whole world.

“Phil (Mickelson) and Tiger (Woods), if you’re going to use that as an example, they didn’t grow up together, room together, all that stuff, stay in touch through college and play in the same tournaments. I think it’s just a different situation when you kind of grow up, spend a lot of time. Justin and Rick(ie Fowler), they live on the same street and they spend most of their time at home together.”

Spieth knows that his friendships are unusual and concedes that not everyone might understand.

“We can share experiences with each other that we can’t really describe or explain to anybody else that’s our age, or very few, I should say, and it creates a unique relationship,” he says.

Mike Purkey: Why the City Amateur is important to Charlotte

Xan Law (left) and Braxton McLennan, the executive director of the Charlotte City Amateur. This year’s tournament was played in honor of Law, who died last December. (Photo Courtesy of Braxton McClennan)

The day was over and Braxton McClennan had finally taken a moment to slow down. The Charlotte City Amateur had concluded, the historic trophy was presented to young Will Stewart and the crowd that had come to celebrate Charlotte golf had begun to disperse.

McClennan took a deep breath with something cold to drink in his hand. McClennan is the executive director of the City Am and another successful event was in the books. It is 10 years since McClennan and others saved the City Am from what looked like a certain death.

In 2007, there was no City Am for the first time since 1958, when the tournament began. Some of Charlotte’s top golfers thought that was no less than a crime. A committee was put together and it included former champions Todd Smith, Robby Kirby, Chip Hunter, John Fitch, Robby Kirby, Nolan Mills and others.

One of the others was Xan Law, who won the City Am in 1969. Law died last December of cancer at age 75. He was a force on the committee and this year’s championship was dedicated to Law. Tournament officials wore shirts with an “X” embroidered on the sleeve in Law’s honor.

Law led the charge to recruit the best clubs in town to host the event. Other committee members were skeptical. But Law reached out to Charlotte Country Club and Quail Hollow Club and others and asked them to participate. And they did.

Each year, the tournament is spread out, with one round each at three different clubs. This year, Cedarwood Country Club hosted the first round, the second round was at Carmel Country Club’s North Course and Quail Hollow hosted the final round. That reduces each club’s commitment, making it easier to say yes when the City Am comes calling.

The City Am is not the biggest golf event in Charlotte, but it might be the most important. The heartbeat of the game in any city is the players. They support the daily fee courses and private clubs. They buy the golf balls and equipment. They rally behind charitable causes that use golf as a vehicle to raise money. They buy the tickets to the Wells Fargo Championship and the PGA Championship.

The City Am identifies the best player in Mecklenburg County for the year. But the tournament contributes much more.

“It’s important to Charlotte because it brings the community together,” McClennan said. “It brings people who love the game together. It builds such wonderful relationships with the people you meet in this tournament. It’s such a great community centered in the game of golf.”

And the championship is democratic with 205 players entered this year from all walks of life, from public courses and private clubs, from juniors to seniors. All hoping to be part of the deep and rich history of Charlotte golf.

Former City Am champions include Smith, who was a former ACC champion, former U.S. Amateur finalist David Strawn, former PGA Tour players Terry Mauney and Skip Dunaway, the storied Leon Crump, and six-time champion Joe Jaspers.

And in 1958, the first year of the event, a young Charlotte News sportswriter named Ron Green finished second to Bill Williamson. The City Am trophy now bears the name of Ron Green Sr., who contributed more than anyone can imagine to golf in Charlotte and who was in attendance on Sunday at Quail Hollow, mostly watching his grandson, Jake McGlone, finish tied for ninth in the championship.

For the longest time, the top players didn’t compete in the City Am for a number of reasons, which included the venues and problems with pace of play. But that’s all been solved.

“It feels good to have the best players in Charlotte come up and tell you this is the tournament they put on their calendar first, before any other event,” McClennan said.

And now, 10 years on, McClennan and the committee spend long hours creating a championship worthy of the city it represents.

“I do it because I care,” McClennan said. “I love Charlotte and I care. It’s a labor of love.”

Mike Purkey: Quail Hollow – Great? Or just plain hard?

Quail Hollow’s members now have a brute of a difficult course. Is it enough to test the best players in the world? (File photo)

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.

 

What makes Raleigh’s River Ridge Golf Club one of the Triangle’s hidden gems?

River Ridge Golf Club’s 11th hole, a 315-yard par-4. Photo by Pat James.

When it comes to the best public golf offerings in the Triangle, most of the discussion revolves around those at the area’s most prominent universities.

The Duke University Golf Club, UNC Finley Golf Course and N.C. State’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course are regarded as some of the top courses in the state, each ranking within the top 65 of the North Carolina Golf Panel’s 2017 course rankings.

However, hidden gems such as the River Ridge Golf Club in Raleigh help make the Triangle one of the top golf destinations in the Carolinas.

Here are five takeaways from my recent round at River Ridge, which came in at No. 19 in Golf Advisor’s 2016 rankings of the top 25 courses in N.C., based off customer ratings and reviews.

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Mike Purkey: 10 things to watch at the British Open this week

Dustin Johnson of the United States gestures before taking his shot off the fifth tee during a practice round ahead of the British Open Golf Championship at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England on Tuesday. (Associated Press/Dave Thompson)

1. Royal Birkdale Golf Club is one of the gems of the Open Championship rotation. Demanding and difficult, Birkdale will play as a par-70 for the Open and the players won’t find many birdie opportunities. In fact, players won’t see a par-5 until the 15th hole and the only other par-5 is at the 17th. No one is expected to take this course apart.

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Immaculate greens, elevation changes make this course one of Charlotte’s hidden gems

Eagle Chase Golf Club’s second hole, a 412-yard par-4, features one of the course’s most demanding tee shots. Photo by Pat James.

Nestled in the hills of northern Union County, surrounded by acres of countryside and farmland, sits one of the most unique courses in the Charlotte area – and perhaps the best value.

Eagle Chase Golf Club in Marshville, North Carolina, about 35 miles from uptown Charlotte, came in as the No. 5 course in the state and No. 20 value course in the country according to Golf Advisor’s 2016 rankings, based off customer ratings and reviews.

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