Wagons East

How the Wells Fargo Championship picked Wilmington’s Eagle Point

By Jim Moriarty

When the circus comes to town it brings a big tent, some high wire acts and a lot of attention. When the Wells Fargo Championship pitches up at Eagle Point Golf Club in May it will bring all three. At least that’s the hope. Hosting a PGA Tour event is tough enough when you do it year-in and year-out. Doing it once, in a place that wasn’t designed for it, and getting it right can present a daunting set of challenges. After all, who wants to come off looking like a seat-filler at the Oscars with a clip-on tie and an ill-fitting tux?

You could say the trip from Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Golf Club to Wilmington’s Eagle Point began in a golf cart on Friday, May 6, 2010. That was the day Johnny Harris, Quail Hollow’s BDFL (benevolent dictator for life), was seen chauffeuring the PGA of America’s chief championships officer, Kerry Haigh, around the course two days before Rory McIlroy would shoot 62 to win his first tournament in America. The event that burst onto the PGA Tour’s schedule like a Mardi Gras float passing out perks to players like beads on Bourbon Street was calling itself simply the Quail Hollow Championship that year since, in the wake of the financial meltdown of ’08-’09, banks sponsoring golf tournaments had taken to wearing paper bags over their logos.

“Would we have preferred that you not see Kerry out here? Probably yes,” said Harris at the time. “He was here to get comfortable with what we do and how we do it and the size of our crowds. He just came by here to visit. That’s basically what it was. To take a look at how we do things. We compared the things we do and the things they do. Just getting to know each other.” They got to know each other well enough that by August the PGA of America had announced it would be taking its most prestigious championship to Quail Hollow in 2017.

What Harris didn’t want to sign on for was hosting two tournaments in the same year. That didn’t, however, mean the Wells Fargo Championship — the banks eventually got over their shyness — was destined for the North Carolina coast. In fact, it was just as possible it would cozy up to the Pacific, where Wells Fargo makes its home. “There was some discussion about California, Harding Park (in San Francisco). There was discussion about potentially doing something in Philadelphia because that was a good market for them. They talked about potentially Atlanta,” says Harris. “In the end, I was very, very supportive of what I thought could be accomplished down at Eagle Point. We thought by virtue of going to eastern North Carolina we had a chance to really do something special for that area of the state. If you want me to plead guilty to being a big supporter of the state of North Carolina, I’m absolutely guilty.”

Harris wasn’t alone. Kendall Alley, Wells Fargo’s regional president, was keen to keep the tournament in state as well. In the wake of the Great Recession, it was Alley, who once played wide receiver at Clemson University, who was as responsible as anyone for convincing Wells to continue its sponsorship of the tournament in Charlotte. With Wells Fargo agreeable to remaining in North Carolina, selecting Eagle Point as the venue would have been no more complicated than a couple of green jackets — Augusta National Golf Club members Harris and Bobby Long — clinking glasses under the sprawling oaks of Augusta’s veranda. Long, who since the death of the Eagle Point’s first president, Billy Armfield, has become to that club what Harris is to Quail Hollow, had already saved one PGA Tour tournament for North Carolina, spearheading the rescue of the Wyndham Championship in his hometown of Greensboro, a tour stop that has been in existence since 1938.

“We’d had a lot of adverse economic circumstances,” says Long of Greensboro when its venerable tour stop, won eight times by Sam Snead, was on life support. “Here it was, one of the oldest events on tour, and it was going to go away. Let’s try not to let that happen. I’ve seen firsthand the economics that occur when you do something that’s broadcast around the world and is a success.” The powerful troika of business scions, Harris, Alley and Long, made Wilmington’s center of gravity as irresistible as a day at the beach.

“Johnny and I are old friends,” says Long. “He called me and said we’re thinking about this, what do you think? Our first thought was this is quite an undertaking, particularly for one year.”

Ultimately, it presents an even bigger opportunity. “A lot of us have vacation homes in the area. We love it but have we done enough to give back?” asks Long. “This is a very rare thing for Wilmington to be able to bring eyeballs from 210 countries through CBS and show Wilmington as a great place.”

Though these days you’d have to travel all the way south to Hilton Head to find something comparable to the PGA Tour playing right across the Intracoastal from a posh barrier island, it’s not the first time the big show has been to the beach. The Azalea Open (or something sporting a similar name) was played in Wilmington in 1946 and from 1949-71 at the Cape Fear Country Club. Arnold Palmer won it in 1957 and nearly succeeded in defending the title, losing in a Monday playoff the following year after calling a penalty on himself during the last round — he saw his ball move on the 14th green.

Most often played the week before the Masters, the best-known story to come out of the Azalea Open probably belongs to Jack Nicklaus. In 1959 Nicklaus, a 19-year-old amateur, requested a spot in the Azalea Open and was granted an exemption. When he showed up, however, he was informed the offer had been made in error and he’d have to qualify, which he did. He shot 73-74 the first two rounds in horrible weather and was tied for 14th place, six shots behind. Whether it was nothing more than the lousy conditions (or perhaps he was still a little miffed at being forced to qualify after being promised a spot), Nicklaus withdrew from the tournament and headed to Augusta to prepare for his first Masters.

“On Monday, when the tour brass arrived at Augusta National from Wilmington for the Masters, the very first thing they did was come find little old Jackie Nicklaus,” writes Nicklaus in his book My Story. The young Nicklaus did his best to explain himself. The tour officials were having none of it. One pointed out that, if he’d shot 70-70 on the weekend, he would have won the tournament. Win, lose or draw, taking a walk wasn’t acceptable behavior in a professional event. The more Nicklaus thought about it, the worse he felt: “…it ended up teaching me a lesson that has lasted my entire career — which is that, when you enter a golf tournament, you stay in that golf tournament to its beautiful or bitter end, unless you become physically incapacitated to the point of not being able either to walk or to swing a golf club. Hopefully, my addiction to that philosophy over the intervening years has made up a little for my youthful stupidity.”

Once the decision was made for the tour to return to Wilmington after a hiatus approaching half a century, Eagle Point, like the proverbial dog that chases the car and catches it, set about the task of devouring the steel-belted radial that is the Wells Fargo Championship. Inevitably, one of the first questions is, how will the course hold up when some of the best players in the world have a go at it? The answer, like most relationships — even short-term ones — is complicated.

Founded in 2000 and designed by Tom Fazio as a pure golf club, as opposed to a tournament venue, Eagle Point will only be as vexing as the stakeholders want it to be. There is a balance between a good show and a good test. Any golf course can be set up to be virtually impossible. The greens can be hard as manhole covers, the rough high as pampas grass, rendering birdies as rare as piping plovers. And, no proud membership wants to see their course reduced to something resembling Blackbeard’s Lagoon Golf and Putt Putt by the best players on the planet wielding high tech equipment that has made length as relevant as a Blackberry. The goal will be somewhere down the middle, not too hot, not too cold. If rains soften the course, they’ll kill it like they do Oakmont CC or Augusta National GC or Pinehurst No. 2 or anywhere else. If the wind blows, as it often does in early May, and the fairways and greens are firm and fast, Eagle Point is long enough and cagey enough to be test enough.

“We’ve seen players go to some of the hardest golf courses in the world and shoot scores that are amazing. It depends on weather conditions, like everything,” says Fazio. “Scoring never really bothers me. No matter what the score, I think the reaction of the players is going to be fabulous. I’m excited about the people that have never been there. Eagle Point is distinctive, almost an old classic. It has the compact feel of a golf club.”

Billy Anderson, Eagle Point’s director of operations, is a western Pennsylvania guy who knows a bit about the Oakmonts of the world, having once worked at the one in suburban Pittsburgh that’s hosted nine U.S. Opens. “If we don’t get any rain and it’s hard and fast, I think it’ll be 10-15 under par,” says Anderson. “If it rains a little bit and the wind doesn’t blow, it will probably be more. And that’s fine.”

Dillard Pruitt, another Clemson alum and a former tour player himself, is a PGA Tour rules official and the advance man for Eagle Point. “Until we play on it, you don’t know,” says Pruitt. “We brought in a few fairways, just a little bit. Not drastic. It’s going to be interesting to see how they do play it. There are going to be some challenges there, but everything is going to work out great. It’s going to be fresh. It’s new.”

Ah, the challenges. They’ve had a few. There is, however, no use comparing the physical plants of Quail Hollow and Eagle Point. “Many of the things that happened (at Quail Hollow) were part of the long range plan,” says Fazio. “It was like a 15-year process to renovate it. Part of that recently has been for additional gallery space. It’s a tournament support facility. There are things like central staging areas for television. Underground cables. Gallery positions. Internal on-site places for evacuation control. You wouldn’t do that on any facility where you were only going to have an occasional tour event.”

While ticket sales will be capped at 25,000 per day, getting that many people in and out of Eagle Point won’t be as easy as using a Star Trek transporter. There will be central spectator parking lots well off property, mostly on Route 17 North. The buses will come down Porter’s Neck Road to a special entrance created on the fourth hole of Eagle Point’s short course. There will undoubtedly be a few snafus along the way and a bit of dislocation for the people who live off Porter’s Neck Road, but it’s a transportation system not dissimilar to most tour events, including the one at Quail Hollow.

From the moment Long agreed to take on Wells Fargo, work commenced on the course. All the bunkers were redone. Five new back tees were constructed. Some of the native areas were grassed in. They hired Marsh Benson, the retired former superintendent at Augusta National, as a consultant. “From an agronomic standpoint, we’re not doing anything different than we do every year, other than we’re overseeded this year,” says Eagle Point superintendent Craig Walsh. Because the first week in May would normally be right on the edge of when the Bermuda grass fairways pop, they didn’t want to run any risk of the turf being held back by an unusually cold spring. “We didn’t want to have that worry,” says Walsh. “We wanted to provide a first-class playing surface and overseeding will do that.”

In the end, what the club earns from the tournament — its fee and percentages of merchandise, concessions, etc. — will likely fall short of the expenses it’s already incurred. “The economics for the club are less than attractive,” says Long with a bit of a smile. “It’s a huge amount of work. We’ve tried to make the golf course as good as we possibly can so that it will reflect well for Wilmington. It’s a way of giving back.”

And, while the economic impact for the golf club may not be eye-popping, it could be for the city. “The numbers from the PGA Tour and from Wells is that there is $40 to $50 million economic impact over three years. And all the charitable dollars, I think that’s between $4 and $5 million, stays in the community, which is wonderful,” says Anderson. “Hopefully, we’ll get five or six days of good weather. We’ll make 25,000 people happy and get a good champion. We want 19 guys to fight it out the last nine holes on TV. It’s great theater.”

And then spread the word.

Jim Moriarty spent 35 years following golfers for Golf Digest and Golf World and survived.

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