The man who energized Quail Hollow Club places a plastic cover on a powerless reel mower. He’s just finished listing all the ways the old-school piece of equipment has been invaluable to him and his staff, helping them finish off cuts around tight corners near bunkers, and now he’s walking toward the door of the garage. His phone rings as he’s standing under a sign that reads, “Greatness Happens Here.”
It’s mid-May, 85 days before the PGA Championship, and course superintendent Keith Wood has grown accustomed to the sound of his phone. In the past hour alone, it’s interrupted our conversation at least a half-dozen times. Each time, I told him I wouldn’t mind if he answered; each time he said it could wait. But not this time.
“That’s Mr. Harris,” Wood says, standing a little straighter. “I’m sorry, but I have to get that.” He walks out the door and into the hot sun, looking for privacy.
Mr. Harris, in this case, is Johnny Harris, president of Quail Hollow Club since 1988 and one of the most powerful people in Charlotte, the second- fastest-growing big city in America. Harris’ development business has created some of the boldest and most notable construction projects in the city. His reputation is so strong, people in the past have asked him to run for governor. (His mind is so sharp, however, that he had the good sense to say no.)
For at least three decades, Harris has dreamed of hosting a major tournament at Quail Hollow, the club his father founded along with 20 other people in 1959. His enthusiasm for the idea spread all over the city and state, so much so that when the official announcement finally came in August 2010, it was attended by multiple dignitaries, including a former governor and the current governor.
In 2015, Harris and the club had to make one of their most important hires: They needed a superintendent who could carry them into the 2017 PGA Championship.
What happened after they hired the 43-year-old Wood was remarkable. He implemented a new management system for 30 to 40 employees and changed the culture of the course management team. He established a relationship with club members, some of whom are among the wealthiest (and, yes, at times most demanding) people in the South. He oversaw a massive renovation in 2016 that took only three months. Oh, and he and his wife had their second child, too.
How’d he pull all of that off? For starters, he didn’t have a choice. But more than that, he’d been preparing for the challenge since he was a kid.
Making the dream a reality
When Wood was a boy, his parents moved to Bamberg, South Carolina, a tiny town of 3,500 people about an hour south of Columbia. “The story goes that we were in Bamberg because my brother and I were such trouble that my parents decided to move to a small town where everybody looked after everybody, and we couldn’t get out and do whatever we wanted,” he says.
Wood’s father was the son of an almond farmer from San Joaquin Valley in California, and he believed that boys should work. When Wood was 10 or 11, he took his dad’s lawnmower all around Bamberg, mowing lawns for anyone who’d pay him, from homeowners to doctor’s offices. This was before he had a Walkman, too. “All you could do was concentrate on what you were doing,” he laughs.
Still, the idea of working on a golf course didn’t occur to him until later in life. He attended the University of South Carolina and majored in biology, intending to go to medical school. He was a junior before he realized that being a doctor wasn’t for him. He finished his biology degree and took a job at Wildewood Creek Club as an assistant superintendent after graduation.
While there, he enrolled in the turf management program at Rutgers University in New Jersey and finished it in two years. A few years later, he became an assistant at Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina, before landing his first superintendent position at South Carolina’s Florence Country Club in 2002.
He stayed at Florence for five years before heading back to Greensboro to be superintendent at the prestigious Sedgefield Country Club, home of what’s now called the Wyndham Championship.
During his first four years there, he kept Sedgefield’s bentgrass greens in shape for the PGA Tour event, which came to town every August, a blistering time of year in North Carolina. In 2012, he led the transition to bermudagrass at Sedgefield, and everybody raved that August, too.
Changing the culture
About nine months later, though, down the road in Charlotte, Quail Hollow had trouble with its bentgrass greens during the May 2013 Wells Fargo Championship. At least two greens had to be resodded less than two weeks before the tournament, and nine PGA Tour players withdrew before it began.
It was an uncomfortable weekend not just for the club, but for many people in Charlotte, a city The New York Times once described as a place “where the booster gene is the dominant biological strain.” Harris, the club owner, told the local newspaper later that the 2013 tournament was “the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.”
Wood doesn’t talk about the 2013 Wells Fargo tournament; after all, he wasn’t here at the time. But the staff members who were, from the assistants to the garage workers, remember it as a low point. The mood lingered even after a successful switch to MiniVerde Ultradwarf greens the following year for the 2014 Wells Fargo.
The next year, three assistant superintendents – Brandon Hicks, Shane Omann and Basil Lowell, all in their late-20s – worked together to do most of the preparation for the 2015 Wells Fargo while the club interviewed candidates for a new superintendent. The club hired Wood about two weeks before the tournament.
Things changed immediately.
“I was one foot out the door,” Hicks, a North Carolina native, says with a drawl. “I had interviewed and done everything but accepted the position as an assistant superintendent [at another course]. But I knew of Keith, knew he was well respected in the area, and knew what was at stake with the PGA Championship. When I found out he was hired, I immediately made the decision that I wanted to be a part of the team.”
Wood could’ve overhauled the staff, but instead he kept the three assistants and worked to build their trust. He set up a system where they’d rotate jobs – one would manage the staff, another would run the applications and another would manage projects. Every six months, they’d switch jobs.
“He was able to see us in the heat of the moment [at the 2015 Wells Fargo], and assess our strengths and weaknesses,” Lowell says. “And then he put us in our weakest areas so we could get stronger at them.”
A little less than a year ago they found a mix they liked: Omann runs the staff; Lowell handles the applications; and Hicks works the projects, coordinating with the PGA of America on things like where to put stakes without hitting in-ground power lines.
Another important staffing decision came when Wood made his first hire, pulling Greg Vierkant from Disneyland to be Quail Hollow’s horticulturalist. This was a priority for Harris. A longtime member at Augusta National, Harris wants his course to light up with color for the television cameras this August – a time of year when most things around here are either green or greener. Since the renovation was completed last August, Vierkant has planted 300 trees and 1,500 shrubs, many of which should burst into color by tournament time.
The connection Wood has with his staff members is about more than what’s planted, though. They’re all in similar situations, family-wise. Wood’s children are 3 and 2, Vierkant’s are 2 and 1, Omann’s daughter is 1, and Hicks and his wife are expecting their first, a boy, in September.
“It’s funny, because I can bounce things off ’em,” Wood jokes. “Like, ‘Is your wife pulling her hair out, too?'”
Going through similar milestones at home while working day and night to prepare for a career milestone has helped bring them together, they say.
“Motivation’s at an all-time high,” Omann says. “This tournament adds a little more motivation, but really it’s seeing the aftermath of everybody’s hard work after last year’s construction.”
Oh yes, last year. Let’s finish that story.
The art of golf course management
Within hours of the final putt of the 2016 Wells Fargo, crews removed hundreds of trees, tore up the turf and commenced an aggressive renovation. Holes 1 and 2 became a long No. 1. Hole 5 became 4 and 5. More than 800 trees were removed in the first day alone. On the greens, crews hauled in dirt and mixed it with natural vermacompost to create a healthy environment for the Champion Ultradwarf bermudagrass from Texas. The last putt of the May 2016 Wells Fargo happened on May 8. Quail Hollow was open again to members by late August.
Then came the hard part.
For at least a decade, Quail Hollow superintendents had overseeded the course with ryegrass each winter to get it ready for the May PGA Tour event. This past winter, though, with various types of bermudagrass (Champion on the greens, a mixture of Tifgreen 328 and Tifway 419 on the fairways, and TifGrand on the tees) covering everything, Wood and his crew didn’t overseed. Instead, they watched the young bermudagrass go dormant and hoped for a good winter.
Well, it was a warm one in Charlotte. Very warm. The temperature reached 60 degrees or higher 14 days in January and 24 days in February. (For reference, the average temperature of any single day in Charlotte doesn’t eclipse 60 until March.) Most club members assumed Wood would be thrilled, but he wasn’t. During the renovation, crews strategically cut down certain trees to allow sunlight to hit the greens. That was in August, though, and the angle of sunlight changes in the winter. So while the warm temperatures in January and February signaled to the grass to wake up and open, the sun wasn’t there to provide energy. The grass naturally retreated when the weather got cool again, especially during a surprise frost in April.
“We had constant wake-ups and go-to-sleep periods,” Wood says. “It robs the energy from the plant that it had stored, the carbohydrates. … So when people tell me I must’ve loved that warm winter, no, not really. It was equally as challenging as it would’ve been if it was cold.”
Such is the way with a North Carolina shoulder season, when days might push 80 in January, then bring a freeze in April. You just never know. That’s why turf teams in the region have such a range of opinions on how to manage courses. Several championship courses in the state – including Quail Hollow, Pinehurst No. 2 and Sedgefield – moved to bermudagrass greens in recent years.
But many clubs have not. Charlotte Country Club, for instance, still runs on bentgrass. So does Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte.
“The volatility of the Carolina springs and falls is when this job really turns into an art form,” Wood says. “It’s an area where everything wants to grow, but nothing wants to be dominant.”
Wood and his crew countered the up-and-down temperatures by spraying light doses of nitrogen in spring to replace the turf’s lost energy. The staff also put out preemergent herbicides about a month earlier than usual. It wasn’t until a few days before I visited in mid-May that Wood finally felt comfortable.
Still, club members who were accustomed to Quail Hollow Club’s lush green in May had questions about the lingering brown spots.
On that May morning, club member Bob Seymour, a longtime oral surgeon in the city, paid Wood a visit. Seymour serves as the greens chairman, which means it’s his job to listen to what members are saying about the course, then relay their comments to Wood.
“We have 300 superintendents here,” Seymour jokes.
That day, Seymour said the club members wanted to know about a few areas that appeared burned and shaved. Wood laughed. He’s been superintendent for seven tour events in North Carolina in August, he likes to say, recounting his time at Sedgefield. He’s not worried about the PGA. What keeps him up at night is what happens after that. There’s a 2018 Wells Fargo to put on next May, after all, which means his team will have to hustle after the championship leaves in order to overseed with ryegrass in September to turn the course in time for spring.
Perhaps Wood’s greatest skill, though, is that he can talk about grass, then answer a phone call from the powerful course owner, and then ease the mind of an anxious club member – all in succession, transitioning seamlessly without missing a beat. In this case, with Seymour, he responded in typical fashion for a Southern boy from the Carolinas – with a little dry humor.
“Doc, I’m glad it’s like that now,” Wood told Seymour. “If everything was perfect, we might get cocky.”