Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 42
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Johnny Harris: Golf’s big hitter

Johnny Harris’ lifetime in golf has made him one of the game’s unique power brokers

On a spring afternoon in 2011, Arnold Palmer finished lunch and made his way to the door at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, where a car waited to take him to the airport. Palmer, then 81, had just played in the Wells Fargo Championship pro-am with his grandson, Sam Saunders, and an old friend named Johnny Harris, the club president.

Harris walked Palmer outside. Standing on the pavement, Palmer reflected on the growth of Quail Hollow, a club he had encouraged Harris’ father, a local insurance executive, to build 50 years earlier.

Palmer looked at Harris. “John,” he said, “your dad and the founders would be really proud with what you’ve done with this course and this tournament.”

With that, Palmer turned to get in the car. Then, he stopped, wrapped his hands around the back of Harris’ neck and offered one final thought.

“Remember,” he said, looking Harris in the eye, “the road to success is always under construction.”

Harris took those words to heart, especially the ones about construction. This is, after all, a man who, 18 months before the start of this week’s PGA Championship in Charlotte, convinced the PGA of America governing body that it would be a good idea to attempt the audacious feat of reworking four holes on the course at the same time all the greens were being replaced.

Quail Hollow President Johnny Harris dreamed big and now has a golf major to show for it.

Remarkably, the project, incorporating three construction firms working simultaneously, wrapped in 89 days last summer. Three hundred crew members moved and reshaped 200,000 pounds of dirt, cleared hundreds of trees, and replaced and re-planted at least 250 or so of those trees.

Rory McIlroy, after an impromptu sneak peek last year, pronounced the new opening holes “a firm handshake” compared with what he once viewed as a rather casual golf introduction at the first tee. McIlroy, like everyone else on the PGA Tour, came to know Quail Hollow as the home of the Wells Fargo Championship, an event added to the tour schedule in 2003.

As Harris and others have made clear, what the golfers will encounter this week is another thing altogether.

Sitting in his real estate firm’s headquarters — located just a few blocks from Quail Hollow — Harris talked about those changes. And six years after Palmer’s farewell benediction, Harris turned serious while recounting the last time Palmer played at the Charlotte golf club.

Palmer, who died at age 87 last year, and the late James J. Harris, who died in 1985, were, as Harris will tell you without hesitation, the two most influential people in his life.

Over the next week or so, Harris expects to have his father and Palmer on his mind often. They inspired an ambitious charge spanning 20 years that, with a major assist from renowned golf architect Tom Fazio and $14 million worth of changes and upgrades to the fairways and greens, allowed Harris to create a course that has won kudos from pros who have dropped in to get a glimpse of the overhaul.

Now, at the dawn of the 99th PGA Championship, the golf world is ready to descend on Quail Hollow, capping a suburban, old-school course’s ascension from afterthought to regular tour stop — and into the rarefied air of staging a major championship. Millions of people, watching on TNT and CBS, will get an eyeful of a course considered young by golf majors’ standards — and one that looks like it will be in the spotlight on a regular basis for years to come.

First Look podcast, with in-depth discussion of this week’s event in Charlotte:

■ ■ ■ ■

Harris, who turned 70 this summer, is a boisterous personality: loud, always on the go and fond of addressing almost everyone he meets with a simple greeting: “Pod-nah!” That’s Southern patois for “partner,” for the uninitiated.

Golf runs through almost everything Harris does, and has done. His father was a member at two of the most exclusive clubs in the country — Augusta National, where the elder Harris and Palmer became friends, and Seminole near Palm Beach, Fla.

It long ago became part of family lore that, soon after Palmer won his first green jacket in 1958, he paid a visit to James Harris in Charlotte. Johnny Harris, all of 11 years old at the time, remembers what everyone in his family recalls about the visit: James Harris dozing while Palmer recounted his triumph at Augusta.

Harris’ father, James (right), was a Quail Hollow founder and passed along his love of golf to his son.
The anecdote may be well-worn, but it still delivers a laugh whenever Harris finds himself telling tales, which is all the time. (Palmer’s visit to the Harris home came on the same night James Harris invited 20 friends over to plan the private club that became Quail Hollow.)

Johnny Harris remains mostly anonymous beyond the Carolinas, but in golf circles he has long been a known entity. In addition to the connections forged by his father at Augusta and with Palmer, Johnny Harris’ wife, Deborah, had an uncle named Joseph Dey Jr. The same Joseph Dey who ran the U.S. Golf Association for 34 years before becoming the first PGA Tour commissioner in 1969. Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were among the golfers who backed Dey at a time when the players succeeded in breaking away from the PGA of America.

Dey, along with Ike Grainger, an influential rules committee leader at the USGA and Augusta, played pivotal roles in the 1951 rules summit involving the USGA and Scotland’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club. The Rules Conference is viewed by hard-core golfers as the game’s Magna Carta.

Grainger, a New York banking executive, and Dey became friends, furthering Harris’ golf connections. Dey died in 1991; Grainger in 1999 at age 104.

In Harris’ view, the thread connecting all of his golf friendships and networking is simple: love of the game. Growing the game is, in Harris’ view, the point of everything that happens on the professional tour and beyond.

By the 1970s, when the Kemper Open brought Palmer and the rest of the PGA Tour to Quail Hollow each year, Harris was still an avid recreational golfer. Dey provided introductions with other power brokers in the sport. It was less a path to power than a natural progression of golf enthusiasts embracing others who loved the game.

■ ■ ■ ■

When it comes to golf’s most influential, Harris lavishes praise on almost all of them. Former PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem was, and still is, a close confidant. Sir Michael Bonallack, an accomplished amateur golfer who presided over the Royal and Ancient for much of the 1980s and 1990s, is a gentleman who loves the game, the loftiest praise Harris bestows.

Then again … “I had problems with Deane,” Harris said of Deane Beman, the tour commissioner from 1974 to 1994. Beman was running the tour when the Kemper Open left Quail Hollow for Washington, D.C.

Ambition and peer pressure are what truly sparked the renaissance at Quail Hollow. In 1995, Harris went to the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill in western New York. During a dinner that week, Harris sat with businessmen and fellow golf aficionados he knew well: Jack Vickers, the Colorado oilman who developed the Castle Pines course designed by Jack Nicklaus; Tom Cousins, the noted Atlanta real estate developer; and Wisconsin billionaire Herb Kohler, who commissioned Pete Dye to build Whistling Straits.

“Everybody up there was trying to get an event,” Harris said. “All these guys [who are my contemporaries]. I said, ‘Lord, I’m not trying to get an event. I need to get in the game.’”

After attending that dinner, Harris resolved to bring big-time golf to Charlotte. When he returned to Charlotte, he hired Fazio and began the long journey that brought him, and Quail Hollow, to this week.

The players said nice things about Quail Hollow’s transformation from the beginning and never stopped. Sure, praise from Jay Haas, a veteran player, Quail Hollow member and friend of Harris, was biased, but similarly glowing remarks came from less-partisan notables in those early years. David Toms, Fred Couples, Nick Price and Tiger Woods — all past winners of a major — touted the course and club as traditional and hinted at future major championships being played there.

All of the praise instilled confidence in Harris, as did a champions list that, with Woods’ title in 2007, began to boast more pedigreed players. Even so, it took a financial meltdown to push Quail Hollow into a sustained drive for a major championship.

Charlotte-based bank Wachovia and its then-CEO, Ken Thompson, played a key role helping Harris lure the PGA Tour back to Charlotte. Thompson knew PGA Tour executives well because Wachovia was the tour’s bank. When Thompson went looking for a way to introduce the “new” Wachovia following a merger between Wachovia and First Union in 2001, the CEO liked the idea of using a golf tournament as the centerpiece of his company’s next marketing campaign.

Playing a round with Phil Mickelson in 2014.
In 2002, the Wachovia Championship was created, with the first one played the following spring at Quail Hollow.

From the beginning, the Wachovia Championship drew praise and brought in capacity crowds. Tour executives cited the Charlotte tournament as a role model.

Everything was great until the economy, and the financial sector in particular, fell apart. In 2008, Wachovia stumbled badly, crippled by the after-effects of its purchase of a California mortgage company two years earlier. Despite those woes, Wachovia extended its contract as title sponsor through 2014.

Tournament officials and the bank announced the agreement on May 2, 2008; a month later, the Wachovia board fired Thompson.

As the Great Recession roared through the financial sector in the fall of 2008, Wachovia cratered. Wells Fargo acquired what remained of Wachovia that fall.

Even with Wells Fargo, uncertainty persisted for Harris and the tournament. Federal bailouts spurred backlash over financial firms spending money on sports sponsorships and other advertising. Wells Fargo — inheritor of the contract running through 2014 — responded by stripping its name from the Charlotte tournament even as it kept paying the sponsorship fees.

Harris, frustrated by what he viewed as a possible end to the PGA Tour partnership, quietly searched for alternatives.

“They’d already taken their name off the tournament,” Harris said. “I was looking for somewhere to go.”

Joe Steranka, who ran the PGA of America at the time, liked what he had seen at Quail Hollow and, in August of 2010, Harris and Steranka announced they had a deal: The PGA Championship would be coming to Charlotte in 2017. For nine months before that announcement, Harris and his board at Quail Hollow sat on the signed contract, at the request of the PGA of America. The secret never leaked.

Wells Fargo, of course, fulfilled its contract and by 2011, the bank’s name — Wells Fargo, not Wachovia — returned as part of the Charlotte tournament. And several years later, Wells Fargo negotiated a new deal running through 2019. The event was held in Wilmington, N.C., this year as Quail Hollow prepared for the PGA Championship.

While those machinations played out, the PGA Tour placed another bet on Quail Hollow. In 2015, it chose the Charlotte club for the 2021 Presidents Cup, the team competition matching top pros from the U.S. against international players (other than those from Europe and Britain) every two years in non-Ryder Cup years. (The Ryder Cup pits the American players against Europeans and the British.)

Charlie Zink, chairman of the Presidents Cup and former PGA Tour chief operating officer, pointed to Harris’ leadership as an important factor.

“I don’t think there’s any better golf course or nicer golf club anywhere, arguably, than Quail Hollow,” he said. “And the investment that Johnny has made in that club to keep taking it to higher and higher standards is second to none. The golf course speaks for itself.”

■ ■ ■ ■

A year ago, at Baltusrol, Harris led a Charlotte delegation to see the PGA Championship. The trip gave local government and public safety officials a chance to see the logistics needed to run a major championship. Harris and several Quail Hollow representatives scoped out everything from merchandise tents to hospitality areas.

Harris made his way to the media center, where he spoke to reporters about taking the PGA Championship to North Carolina. Armed with aerial photos of the Quail Hollow makeover, he explained the just completed course changes. As the interview wound down, Harris was asked about Palmer, then ailing in Pennsylvania in what would be the final months of his life.

      Augusta’s influence

    In 1986, Augusta National invited Johnny Harris to become a member, where his influence grew enough that he presided over the prestigious cup and tee marker placement committee, which determines the course setup during the Masters.
    Seeing the tradition of the Masters from the inside has left a deep impression on Harris. Quail Hollow is, in the words of CBS golf analyst Nick Faldo, “the Augusta of North Carolina.”
    From the tree-lined entry road to the minimalist corporate advertising seen during the annual PGA Tour event, and on to Quail Hollow organizers referring to ticket-buying fans as “patrons,” Augusta’s reach can be seen all over Harris’ golf kingdom.
    “Johnny being around the Masters, he knew what he wanted,” said Davis Love III, who admired Harris’ approach so much that he borrowed the Charlotte tournament’s operations director, Tony Schuster, when Love started his own event at Sea Island Golf Club in Georgia. When the Wells Fargo Championship debuted in 2003 at Quail Hollow, “It looked like a major when it opened,” Love recalled. “That’s what Jack Nicklaus strives for at the Memorial Tournament. You know you’re not going to be the Masters, but you want it to look like it and you want the players to say nice things.”
                                                      — Erik Spanberg

Harris declined to publicly discuss Palmer’s health, but said privately he was concerned about his prospects. Harris credited Palmer with all that had happened in Charlotte’s rising golf fortunes. Palmer, he reminded the reporters, was there from the beginning. It was Palmer who promised to get a tour event for James Harris if he built a club. A decade or so after that club opened, Palmer persuaded the tour to put the Kemper Open at Quail Hollow.

Palmer, who for years owned a home overlooking the course’s 15th hole, kept coming back even after the PGA Tour left. First for early-era seniors tournaments, later for one-off events and milestone celebrations. In 1985, he recommended and oversaw changes to four holes: Nos. 3, 7, 9 and 17.

Palmer had unofficially adopted Johnny Harris as a protégé of sorts. James Harris, years ago, had asked Palmer to look out for his youngest son. (Harris, the youngest of four siblings, has a brother, Cameron; his sister Sara and brother Jimmy are deceased.)

Arnie made Johnny Harris part of his immediate army in the mid-1970s, when Harris was getting started in his real estate career.

Harris remembers Palmer inviting him to go to New Zealand. Harris was 29 and early into his real estate career. He told Palmer he couldn’t afford to go.

Palmer replied, “I didn’t ask you to pay, I asked if you wanted to go to New Zealand.” Then the golfer told Harris, “If you can get to L.A., I’ve got you covered.”

Harris got to L.A.

So began a long-running series of travels with Palmer and a tight-knit group of friends and advisers. They went to China, South Africa and France, among other stops, sandwiching those outings around regular bull sessions with Palmer and his coterie at the Masters, St Andrews and beyond. Being in Palmer’s orbit put Harris in some unexpected places: spying Sophia Loren in a Los Angeles restaurant, meeting a rising Spanish golfer named Seve Ballesteros and watching 007 — Sean Connery — hit the links.

Traveling with Palmer gave Harris more than memories. Palmer, of course, pioneered sports marketing business long before it had a name. He could, and did, sell almost anything, from Pennzoil to lemonade-tea.

■ ■ ■ ■

Seeing major championships, gleaning some of Palmer’s salesmanship and carrying on his father’s love of golf, Harris learned how to recruit high-profile events by turning to another sport: college basketball.

Longtime Charlotteans still remember the infamous jab from a sports columnist when the city made a run for an expansion NBA team in the late 1980s: the only franchise the city should expect, he wrote, involved Golden Arches. As in McDonald’s. Charlotte defied the odds and the expansion Hornets arrived in 1988.

Several years later, Harris made his first big civic push, lining up local power players and spearheading a bid to bring the men’s Final Four to Charlotte.

CBS Sports announcer Jim Nantz, who remains the voice of the Final Four and the network’s golf coverage, struck up a friendship with Harris after seeing the real estate developer become a familiar presence at NCAA summer meetings. Harris attended in hopes of building support for Charlotte among NCAA leaders. Nantz remembers a couple of occasions when the summer gathering was in Pebble Beach and he was part of golf outings with Harris.

“Even way back in the early ’90s, leading up to the Final Four, I thought, wow, this guy, if he has your ear for five minutes, whatever it is Johnny’s selling, you’re going to buy it,” Nantz said.

Charlotte hosted the Final Four in 1994, with Nantz calling the games on CBS. And, now, as the PGA Championship lands at Quail Hollow, Nantz will be in the TV tower to tell millions of viewers what’s become of Harris’ golf dream.

Harris developed a long friendship with Arnold Palmer, who served
as a cherished mentor.

Harris still feels like an underdog. But an ambitious underdog.

What does Harris want from the PGA Championship? To make it the safest and best-run tournament in golf this week at Quail Hollow. And to create a lifetime of memories for the fans, players and everyone who works on the tournament.

Anything else? “To have all of this happen in Charlotte, North Carolina,” Harris said, “who would have thought?”

One who saw it was Palmer as his shared wisdom still rings true.

“Remember, the road to success is always under construction.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.