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PGA Champ dreams become reality at Quail Hollow

PGA Championship dreams become reality for Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris

The biggest golf tournament in Charlotte history is almost here, and Johnny Harris is almost ready.

Harris, 70, is the power broker, real estate king, born salesman and gregarious host behind the PGA Championship that's coming to Charlotte. He will marry off two of his great passions this week — golf at the very highest level and Quail Hollow Club. Now Harris is sweating all the small stuff, wanting to make sure the wedding turns out just right.

It's a monstrous event — one estimated to have a total economic impact of up to $100 million in the Charlotte region, according to the city's tourism arm. But Harris is used to pulling off such things. He was a driving force behind the upscale Ballantyne development, the 1994 men's Final Four in Charlotte and the annual Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament, to name a few. Still, he is a little nervous.

"For four years in a row, I went to all four majors in a year," Harris said Friday in an interview. "So I knew what we were getting into. And I still didn't know what we were getting into."

While Charlotte has hosted big-time professional golf for years — most recently with the Wells Fargo Championship that began in 2003 and counts Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy among its champions — it has never seen a tournament quite like this. This will be the best field in golf in 2017 when the first real ball is struck at 7:20 a.m. Thursday, with virtually all of the top 100 players in the world playing. And for those familiar only with the way the Wells Fargo tournament runs, this one will be far different.

MORE: What it's like to play at Quail Hollow | Why N.C. is a great golf state

"Every aspect of it is enlarged," Harris said. "The media outlets that will cover the event, the concession stands, the viewing areas, the hospitality — way, way larger. And the number of people... 50,000 is what we're hearing (per day), and we'd have 30-35,000 at Wells Fargo. Everything has changed. And the golf course has changed dramatically."

That means there are a thousand small details still to take care of, and Harris can think of a few more every time he takes a golf-cart ride around the club where he has been president since 1988.

"You've worked on all the big things," Harris said, "so the things that get you are the little things. ...We've got some director's chairs that go with the Green Mile (Club, which is along the 16th fairway). We own them. We got them. And doggone it if we didn't forget to put them out."

That can be rectified, of course. But there are other concerns that can't be fixed as quickly as the director chairs. The weather could turn bad, and it's probably going to be as hot as blazes. Somebody could always get hurt. When you put 50,000 people in one place, all sorts of things are possible.

But magic — that's possible, too.

Charlotte has hosted plenty of golf tournaments, but never in its history has it had one of golf's four majors before this. If this one goes well — and in terms of financial sponsorships, it is already a huge success — then the PGA Championship could return sometime in the 2020s.

Ideally, all the logistics work out and the tournament is decided with a thrilling finish at the 18th hole Sunday. Perhaps 24-year-old Jordan Spieth wins to complete a career grand slam by winning all four of golf's majors at least once — only five other golfers in history can boast of that feat — and everyone goes home happy.

We will know soon. The tournament that has seemingly been chugging toward our city forever is just around the bend. Charlotte is about to welcome the golf world.

Arnold Palmer's influence

Quail Hollow Club is built on land in south Charlotte that was once part of one of the largest dairy farms in the state. The land belonged to Cameron Morrison, a former North Carolina governor and Harris' grandfather. It was Jimmy Harris, Johnny's father and Morrison's son-in-law, who started Quail Hollow Club in 1959 with 20 other golf-minded locals. Membership now stands at around 340, Johnny Harris said.

Jimmy Harris had the considerable advantage of being good friends with legendary golfer Arnold Palmer, who would eventually become a huge influence in Johnny Harris' life and backed the club from the beginning.

"Arnold said if they built it, he'd get a PGA tournament to come," Harris said. "So it became a win-win. And most of the improvements here in the clubhouse and out on the grounds since then have been financed by professional golf."

The original PGA Tour event that Palmer more or less brought to Charlotte was the Kemper Open, and it was played from 1969-79 at Quail Hollow before moving to the Washington, D.C., area. Palmer became close with the Harris family over the years. After Jimmy Harris died in 1985, the friendship between Palmer and Johnny Harris continued to deepen even though Palmer was 18 years older.

MORE: The top five groups to watch at this year's PGA Championship

"The two men who were most important in my life were my father and Arnold Palmer," Harris said.

Through Palmer, who died last year, Harris gradually gained entrance into the backrooms where the decisions were made in professional golf. After the two had gone on trips to New Zealand and South Africa, Harris said: "All of a sudden, I wasn't outside the ropes. I was inside the ropes. I wasn't a player, but I knew who some of the good guys and some of the bad guys were. ...And most of the people in golf are very good guys – just every now and then they tilt."

Keeping a secret

Quail Hollow and Harris made a bid for the PGA Championship in the late 2000s, emboldened by the success of the Wells Fargo tournament and aided by Harris' many golfing connections (he is also a member of Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters). Charlotte's first golf major was publicly announced in 2010. But the deal was actually done in late 2009, Harris said.

Harris said he got the deal signed and then sat on it for months at the request of the PGA, placing a copy of the contract in a lockbox and taking a vow of silence about it.

That wasn't easy, for Harris loves to tell the story and this was going to be a whopper. But he was familiar with secret-keeping, too.

"In our real estate business, we talk to companies all the time," he said. "And if you can't keep something quiet, you can't do business."

Harris was born and raised in Charlotte, old enough to remember going to Sears and Roebuck uptown in the 1950s and using the dollar his grandfather had given him to buy a good water gun that he would later use to repeatedly wet down his grandfather, who in turn stomped the gun to pieces. This week should be a triumph for his club, certainly, but it is also a win for his city.

The PGA Championship was officially announced in Charlotte on Aug. 31, 2010, so long ago that Bev Perdue was the North Carolina governor who came to Charlotte to participate in the news conference. Now the tournament is hours instead of years away.

MORE: How Quail Hollow's "Green Mile" can make or break a champion

The course was changed radically since the last time the Wells Fargo Championship was held, in 2016 (the tournament was moved to Wilmington this spring to allow more time for the PGAChampionship preparation). While the final twosome was playing its final round on the Sunday of the 2016 Wells Fargo at Quail Hollow, renovations were beginning.

"They were coming up the third fairway and we were going down No. 1, putting down silt fences so we could start construction," Harris said of the Wells Fargo, which is under contract to return to Quail Hollow in 2018-19. "We worked until about 1 o'clock that night."

Ignoring the barking dogs

The course was closed for 90 days. Four holes were given extreme makeovers. All 18 greens were completely redone.

Quail Hollow didn't just mess with a good thing; it tore up a good thing like a child's set of Legos and then put it all back together in three months. (This is a club that likes to tinker — the creek on the left side of the 18th fairway once ran down the right side until it was re-routed).

Did Quail Hollow Club really need all that plastic surgery? Will it feel overbuilt and overdone this week to fans used to more of Quail Hollow's considerable but quieter charms? We will get the verdict this week from the golfers who play and the fans who watch them.

The course has undeniably become harder, especially on the front nine. Patrons of the tournament will also notice the enormous merchandise tent, the additional open areas (more than 900 trees were removed), the heat, the fences and the crowds around Spieth, who tees off at 8:25 a.m. Thursday and is the hottest story of the moment in golf.

As for Harris, he has many other real-estate projects in the works, like the recently announced River District west of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. But his PGA Championship project is only a week from being done. He's checking weather apps and fretting about things that need to be "cleaned up" on the course, but he hopes to be able to watch some golf by the time the tournament starts.

Said Harris: "My father used to say to me: 'If you stop to quiet every barking dog when you walk down the street, you'll never get to the other end.' "

This week is the other end of a dream that began with Harris' father nearly six decades ago.

Charlotte's first golf major has arrived. Time to tee it up.

This article is written by Scott Fowler from The Charlotte Observer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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