Drive to succeed

The image from last May is everlasting. After holing his final putt to win the fifth Wachovia Championship, Tiger Woods pulled his golf ball from the cup, turned and flung it into the crowd along the 18th fairway at Quail Hollow Club.

The moment said many things. It was a glimpse into the emotional intensity of the world’s best golfer, who had seemed in command of the tournament midway through the final round but faltered, giving his opponents a chance to win. Woods’ relief after wrestling with the closing holes at Quail Hollow reinforced the idea that few PGA Tour events are set on a stage as compelling as that of the Wachovia Championship, which will tee off for the sixth time May 1.

Woods triumphed against a playing field that included 28 of the world’s top 30 players — the strongest to play a so-called “regular” tour event since the world golf rankings began two decades earlier. After his two-shot victory over tour veteran Steve Stricker, Woods said, “Over the course of my career, I’ve won a few tournaments here and there, and it’s been nice. This one, considering the field and the golf course and the conditions, I am ecstatic to have won.”

How did the Wachovia Championship come so far so fast? In large part it was because the people behind the tournament made it happen. The creators of the Wachovia Championship — including Wachovia Corp. CEO Ken Thompson, Quail Hollow Club President Johnny Harris and retired Wachovia executive Mac Everett were intent on creating a tournament that transcended most PGA Tour events. They wanted the look and feel of a major championship in Charlotte each May.

That’s what they’ve created. “This tournament is a really important event on our tour because we use this as our model when we talk to other tournament directors and other sponsors about what to do to improve the quality of tournaments,” Phil Mickelson said last year. “Everything they’ve done is the right way.”

There was no secret formula. Instead, the success of the Wachovia Championship can be found in themes familiar to other successful enterprises — a commitment to quality, an emphasis on details, exceptional leadership, a willingness to listen and spend money and a sense of purpose. The result is a must-play tournament for the top players on the PGA Tour and a big week on the Carolinas sports calendar. “It has become an event, not just a golf tournament,” Wachovia Championship Executive Director Kym Hougham says.

When the Kemper Open left Quail Hollow in 1979, the PGA Tour disappeared from Charlotte. Arnold Palmer, a Quail Hollow member, attempted to fill the void by creating a seniors event that predated the creation of the Champions Tour. It was fun, popular and allowed the city to stay in touch with many of the players who had been so popular at the Kemper. But it wasn’t the big tour. It didn’t have sizzle.

To get big-time golf back, two problems had to be overcome. The PGA Tour didn’t have a spot on its schedule for Charlotte, and the Queen City didn’t have a title sponsor. “We always thought Charlotte deserved to have the best players coming here,” Harris says.

He refused to surrender the dream of bringing the PGA Tour back to the club his father founded. Over the course of several years, Harris and Quail Hollow hired renowned course designer Tom Fazio of Hendersonville to rework the layout. It was transformed from a nice course for members into 18 holes capable of hosting — and challenging — the game’s best players.

That was a critical piece of the puzzle. Without a suitable venue, there was no reason for Charlotte to petition the PGA Tour for a tournament. When Fazio turned his attention to Quail Hollow, the result was dynamic. “Tom always felt strongly he could create something the members would like and also create a course that went from one the pros didn’t like to one they loved,” Harris says.

When Thompson approached PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem about creating an event in Charlotte with Wachovia as the sponsor, the time was right. The Tour was looking for another high-profile sponsor, it liked the idea of returning to Charlotte, and Quail Hollow was the ideal venue. The deal was made and, in the process, the Charlotte sports scene and the PGA Tour were transformed. “We had no interest in being anything other than the best stop on the tour,” Harris says.

Nevertheless, both Thompson and Harris have said the event’s stature and overall success surprised them. They both had big dreams but hadn’t anticipated everything happening so quickly.

In all the talk about the success of the Wachovia Championship, one important element often has been overlooked — the date. During negotiations with the tour, organizers insisted they didn’t want the event to immediately follow the Masters, even by two weeks. Greensboro’s tour stop had struggled mightily in that spot, so it was important that the Wachovia Championship avoid it. It got a date in early May, but that was no guarantee of success. When the Wachovia Championship was born, the early part of May was considered a dead zone on the tour schedule, a time when many of the top players took a break. “When we got the date, it wasn’t a great date,” Hougham says. But the Wachovia Championship made it into a great date, so great in fact that with The Players Championship following immediately after the Charlotte stop, many consider it the strongest one-two punch on the Tour schedule.

Initially, the success of the Wachovia Championship was attributed to the sparkle that came with it. Each player was given a new Mercedes to drive during tournament week. Wives were treated to trips to Biltmore Estate in Asheville and Charleston, S.C. Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord was made available to players who might be interested in driving a race car. It was meant to enhance the experience, but as the tournament has grown, the focus has shifted away from amenities.

There are no more wives’ trips or stock-car afternoons. As Hougham likes to point out, he doesn’t have a trip to Fenway Park or dinner in the French Quarter to offer but hasn’t needed it. “Our experience is more about what happens on the grounds than off the grounds.”

One often-overlooked bit of brilliance was the creation of a two-man Wednesday pro-am. Many tournaments put four amateurs with a pro and create rounds that routinely run close to 5½ hours, draining some of the fun and making them a chore for players faced with getting prepared for their real business. At the Wachovia, Wednesdays are popular among the players. Tournament Chairman Everett summarizes the approach by suggesting that the Wachovia Championship wants to say yes to everything until it’s forced to say no.

Perhaps the greatest attribute of the tournament is the people who have brought it to life. The marriage of Wachovia, Quail Hollow and the PGA Tour has worked well, with the groups enhancing each other. Thompson and Wachovia Senior Vice President Dan Fleischman, along with many others, found a good vehicle to market the bank. The tournament came along just as First Union was completing its acquisition of Wachovia and taking its name. The bank needed a way to push the new brand. What was an unknown name in much of the country is now familiar to millions of golf fans around the world, particularly after Woods’ victory last year.

In Harris, Everett and Hougham, the tournament has a threesome of leaders who understand that great golf tournaments are about more than 72 holes of golf and selling beer to fans. They know that the best tournaments have a style that separates them from the routine weekly stops. The tournament organizers are fortunate to have a budget that allows them not only to offer one of the largest purses on the tour schedule but also to spend what they feel is necessary to enhance the championship, whether it’s adding a spectator bridge on the 18th hole, reworking the traffic pattern behind the practice range or making sure the barbecue sold on the course is just right.

Everett, a good player who retired from the bank in 2004, has done a good job managing the constituencies involved in the event. Hougham, previously director of the John Deere Classic in Moline, Ill., is well respected within the industry and has the confidence of tour players who rely on him and his staff before and during their stay in Charlotte. Tony Schuster, who directs the construction of the small city that comes to life during the tournament, is good enough to have caught the eye of a titan. When Woods hosted the AT&T National in Washington, D.C., for the first time last summer, he asked Schuster to duplicate his Wachovia Championship role.

One of the most telling signs of the good feeling surrounding the tournament is that not a single significant member of the organization has left in five years. “We don’t change,” Harris says. “There will be a point when we’ll have some transition, but we haven’t yet, and that gives us huge strength.”

Attention to detail is one of the tournament’s greatest attributes. If you want coffee, you can get Starbucks. If you want something other than a hot dog, you can get a freshly made crepe. Walk around Quail Hollow during tournament week, and you won’t be assaulted by advertising and signs. Everything is understated. There are no gimmicky giveaways.

During every tournament week, Harris, Everett and Hougham keep notes on what can be improved. Sometimes they make the changes overnight, sometimes the changes come the next year.

For example, they realized early on that sticking portable toilets in the woods wasn’t good enough. Now they have flooring under and pine straw around them so fans won’t have to tromp through mud. Nor does the Wachovia Championship just dump its garbage. It separates waste for recycling. “We’re always asking, ‘Can we do any­thing better than we did the year before?’” Hougham says.

There will be noticeable changes this year. On the course, a large tree was taken down in the corner of the par-4 eighth fairway, likely altering the players’ strategy. The 17th green, a controversial putting surface among the players, was softened in a couple of spots. Behind the 18th green, a massive new pool/solarium complex has been built, where guests can mingle and get a view of the final hole. The building was made possible, Harris says, by the decision to extend the Wachovia Championship through 2014.

Harris acknowledges some Quail Hollow members would prefer the tournament go someplace else but says an overwhelming majority like hosting the event. A survey found that about 85% support having the tournament, he says.

The tournament’s success has not gone unnoticed. Representatives of the PGA of America and the United States Golf Association have indicated interest in holding a major event at Quail Hollow, possibly a PGA Championship or Ryder Cup, an all-star event that pits the U.S. against Europe every other year. PGA Championship sites are set through 2013. Ryder Cup sites are planned though 2016. “We’d expect at some point in the future to have an opportunity to host other events,” Harris says. That would be another compliment for the Wachovia Championship and Quail Hollow.

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