Hahn had barely made the turn in the final round last year when work began on a wholesale renovation of the front nine in preparation for this week’s PGA Championship.
A reseeding of the greens with Champion Ultradwarf Bermudagrass was the smallest of the tweaks made to the Quail Hollow, which at this point bears faint resemblance to the George Cobb layout that opened in 1961.
The more significant changes were no more “tweaks” than a kidney transplant is minor surgery. When two-time Wells Fargo winner Rory McIlroy showed up for a preview of the course on July 23, he saw a front nine he didn’t recognize.
In a master plan that represents the shared vision of club president Johnny Harris and renowned architect Tom Fazio, the first hole is no longer the docile, inviting opener where Tiger Woods once ripped a missile with his driver over the right-hand dogleg and stuck a ferociously spinning half-sand-wedge shot from 65 yards within three feet of the hole.
At 524 yards, the first is now the longest par-4 on the course, and to make it that way, Fazio had to gobble up the downhill par-3 second hole, one of the weaker entries on the card. With the elimination of No. 2, the round now opens with three long, unrelenting par-4s before reaching a brand new hole, the par-3 fourth, which occupies the first 200 yards of what used to be the par-5 fifth.
The chopping up of the old fifth hole into a par-3 and a 446-yard par-4 eliminates an extremely awkward blind tee shot that all but required a rope hook around the corner to avoid running through the fairway.
Also on the project list were the addition of a greenside bunker on the 505-yard, par-4 ninth, the lengthening of the 11th hole by 34 yards to 462 and the removal of trees to open up green sites to sunlight.
THIS WAS A HOME-GROWN RENOVATION
It’s not atypical for a sanctioning body to suggest minor changes to a golf course ahead of a major championship. That’s how architect Rees Jones, for example, made his reputation as the “Open doctor” for his work with the USGA in preparing U.S. Open courses.
But the changes at Quail Hollow, with the PGA Championship on the horizon, were driven by Harris and Fazio and took the PGA of America by surprise. It started with a phone call from Harris to PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua (left) and chief championships officer Kerry Haigh.
“We did not make the suggestions to make the changes,” Haigh said on Wednesday at Quail Hollow. “This is a club that had a master plan and a leader and an architect that they wanted to follow and improve. Their goal is to continually try and improve and make the golf course and the facility better.
“Eighteen months ago, we got a call, Pete and I, from the club saying, ‘We want to come back and show you a couple of things we have in mind. So come on down.’
In the meeting that followed the PGA brass was blown away.
“I think Pete and I, in honesty, assumed it was maybe to tweak a bunker or add a tee,” Haigh said. “But Mr. Harris and Tom Fazio came down and laid out these plans on the table and said, ‘Well, we want to replace the grasses on the greens. And, oh, by the way, while we want to do that, we want to build three new holes and a fourth new green on 11.
“So after Pete and I fell down and got back into our chairs, we really challenged them extremely hard. Well, how are you going to do this? What's the time line? You know, we wanted the golf course, all 18 holes, to play the same, consistent.”
The PGA agreed to the changes, which Harris insisted would be completed within 90 days, in time for the members to resume play in the fall of 2016. Harris is more than just Quail Hollow’s president. He’s the club’s benevolent despot. What Johnny wants, Johnny gets.
The project was completed in 89 days, using 80,000 man-hours, regrading 28 acres, sodding 43 acres and moving 200,000 pounds of dirt.
A HISTORY OF CHANGE
Founded by Harris’ father, James J. Harris, Quail Hollow has continued to evolve. Cobb’s original design included a weak short par-4 sixth hole, a demanding par-4 seventh that was a sharp dogleg-right and humdrum par-3 eighth hated by the pros in the Kemper Open days, because the green sat just above eye-level, hiding the landing area.
Arnold Palmer, who had a house on the back nine, made some modest changes to the course in the mid-1980s, but the major renovation was a Fazio project in 1997 in anticipation of landing a PGA Tour event for the property.
The sixth hole is now the longest par-3 on the course at 249 yards. The seventh is the shortest par-5 at 546 yards, with the tee moved back and to the left of its original position to straighten out the hole. The eighth, at 346 yards, is now a “drivable” par-4 for the longest Tour pros, with the possibility of moving the tees up during some of the rounds to increase the temptation.
Since Fazio reworked the eighth in 1997, the hole has been reworked several times. During the past 20 years, the multitiered green, if snow-covered, could have hosted a moguls competition. But recent changes have taken a hole that was a misfit when originally redesigned to an important, integral part of the course.
“There's a couple of changes at the start of the golf course,” McIlroy (right) said on Tuesday, understating the case. “The first is a drastic change, obviously, and the third and fourth holes are a little different. It used to be you got through the first five holes here at 1 or 2 under par, and that was a decent start.
Now you get through the first five holes at even par, and that's when the golf course starts to open up for you. You have the par 5 (seventh), the short par 4 (eighth), you have 10 (par-5)… 11 is being made a little tougher with the little bit of length, but then you've got 14 (short par-4), 15 (reachable par-5).
“I still feel like the golf course gives you plenty of chances. It's going to play long this week with the weather. Obviously, there's been a lot of rain over the last couple of days. But you know, it will probably play -- it will probably play a couple of strokes harder than it used to play, especially with the par going from a 72 to a 71 (because of the elimination of the par-5 fifth).”
THE MENACE OF BERMUDAGRASS
The greens aren’t the only place where Bermudagrass will make a difference.
Because the PGA Championship is a late-summer event (for the time being), the Bermuda rough is thriving, and that presents a challenge the pros rarely see in a major.
“The rough is brutal, this thick Bermuda rough,” said Jordan Spieth (left). “We don't see it anymore. We grew up on grass like this. And Cameron (McCormick, Spieth’s coach) asked me the other day, ‘When is the last time you played in Bermuda rough like this?’
“Last time I can think of is East Lake last year. That's how rare we see it now. I don't even see it at home. The rough doesn't grow that high. It's an adjustment for everybody.”
The rough is thick, the fairways are soft, and the greens are firm—a combination that demands precision.
“My drives, and everybody's, are sticking—right?” Spieth said. “They stop where they land. So I'm hitting it 290 instead of getting the roll-out to 310. I'm hitting two extra clubs into greens, but the greens aren't like the fairways. The greens are firm.
“The greens are really firm, and they are grainy. So you can land the ball into the grain and a lot of bowed greens… so you can land the ball within three paces of each other and end up 40 feet apart. You have to have unbelievable distance control out here once you're in the fairway to get the ball close to these pins.”
Like Spieth, five-time major winner Phil Mickelson sees a tougher golf course, and he’s enthusiastic about the renovations.
“I think the changes have turned out incredibly well, because it's actually made the golf course a little bit tougher, but it's done it in a very subtle way, rather than overdoing it, over-contouring the greens, over-contouring things,” Mickelson said. “It's actually become more subtle. The beauty and the challenge of the golf course have come out.
“It's gotten a little bit longer by reducing one of the par 5s and making No. 1 a difficult par 4, as opposed to a birdie hole. You're going to see us eliminate 4 or 5 (strokes) under par over the course of four rounds right there. You put in rough now that is extremely challenging, rough around the greens, and you've got a major championship that a score very close to par is going to end up winning.”
THERE’S ALREADY TALK OF A RETURN TO QUAIL HOLLOW
So successful was the renovation of Quail Hollow that the PGA is all but guaranteeing a return to the course even before the first drive was struck. The next open date is 2024, three years after the course hosts the Presidents Cup for the first time.
“Sitting here today, when you talk about the fact that we've had record ticket sales, record corporate hospitality, that we have a membership that has embraced this championship, that you have someone that is truly a force of nature in that part of the world in Johnny Harris, and a golf course that our chief championships officer, Kerry Haigh, is just delighted with,” Bevacqua said.
“Operationally, we think the Championship just sets up well here at Quail Hollow. So we of course need to get through this week, but I would tell you… we can't wait to get back here. I think it's 100 percent in our plans to bring the PGA Championship back to Quail Hollow.
“I spoke to some city and state officials yesterday. We'll go through the week; we'll regroup with Johnny Harris and (general chairman) Ralph Breeden and the membership, and at the appropriate time talk about next steps. But I think it's very safe to say that we very much want to come back.”
Of course, when the PGA next comes to Quail Hollow, the date will be in May, and the Bermudagrass won’t be in bloom. Pros will play a course that has grown familiar during the 14 Wells Fargo Championships at the club—with ryegrass rough.
And who knows? By the time the pros return for the next major, they may see a different Quail Hollow from the one that’s hosting this week’s event.
With Johnny Harris in charge, you can all but count on it.