May 4, 2009

Being 'best of the rest' isn't enough?

Quail Hollow event needs to stop reaching for the stars

We've reached the heart of the PGA Tour's "I Wanna Be a Major" Swing, better known as the back-to-back events at Quail Hollow and TPC Sawgrass. It wasn't all that long ago when the snarkiest cynics referred to the post-Masters stretch of tournaments as the Dead Zone, but since striking it rich with its 2003 debut in Charlotte, then a move by the Players to May four years later, this has become the strongest month on the tour schedule, at least from top to bottom.

The Players, of course, has long tried to pawn itself as the game's fifth major, which is a bit like applying for entry to a club that isn't accepting new members. Seeing how the tour has no jurisdiction over the Big Four, Camp Ponte Vedra peddles the Players with a barrage of television ads and leans heavily on the strongest-field-in-golf angle to state its case and layer its credibility, which is both unnecessary and ineffective. It is a terrific tournament, basically a WGC with a much bigger clubhouse, but shopping for major-championship status ended in the early 1960s, when Arnold Palmer and improvements in air travel revitalized the British Open to the point where the world's best players began showing up on a regular basis.

Word out of Charlotte last week came with a reminder that the Wachovia-turned-Quail Hollow Championship has declared itself the sixth major, which only means your member-guest has an outside shot at becoming No. 7. The event changed its name earlier this year after the banking industry's version of Pac-Man, yet Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris is dropping hints about hosting a U.S. Open or a PGA Championship, maybe even a Ryder Cup, when the club's contract with the tour expires in 2014.

Perhaps I missed something here. Instead of aiming at some one-time, pie-in-the-sky project that would be played a decade from now, shouldn't Harris be on the phone with his pals at Corporate Dollar Central, demanding that the tour find someone to underwrite his seven-year-old success story? Wachovia vanished because it was swallowed in a merger with Wells Fargo, which is supposedly a financial mess itself and wants nothing to do with slapping its name on some $6 million golf tournament.

Not even one with Tiger Woods, the best valet parking on earth and a course people can't stop drooling over. Haven't the good people of Charlotte done enough to deserve a tour stop every year? Why would anyone of sound mind commit to serving as the site of the 2087 Fidelity Investments U.S. Open? Go ahead, call yourself the sixth major, but sooner or later, somebody has to pick up the tab on that all-universe lunch spread.

Leave not-so-well enough alone, Mr. Harris. Those guys at the PGA of America might be whispering nice things in your ear, but Glory's Last Shot ain't coming your way anytime soon. Quail Hollow doesn't have the space to accommodate the demands of a major championship. Sure, the layout is fine and the locker room is plush, but it takes more than a bunch of good par 4s and comfy leather sofas to make the short list today, much less 20 years from tomorrow.

"They wouldn't look much at the golf course to start with," says Davis Love III, born in Charlotte. "They'd say, 'Wait a minute, is there room for parking? For corporate hospitality? Is there room for buses?' All the things they do well here with a medium-large tournament, but if you get an extra-large tournament, can you handle it?

"That's the argument at Merion, at so many places. Can you get people in and out? Is the infrastructure big enough? I don't think there's enough room here for everything else that goes with it."

It bothers me that the situation at Quail Hollow appears unstable, that Wells Fargo would pay a ton of money to disassociate itself with what is unquestionably one of the biggest sporting events in Charlotte, a gathering with immense civic value in a town that isn't big enough to earn much time in the national spotlight. It bothers me that no corporate entity has stepped forward and recognized the strength of this product, then tried to work out a deal with Wells Fargo to assume the sponsorship.

Maybe that will happen, maybe it won't. What I do know is that there is no sixth major because there is no fifth major, and Quail Hollow won't be getting one of the other four.