Following the inaugural Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, Vijay Singh, the PGA’s 2003 leading money winner proclaimed, “This is a great tournament. There is absolutely nothing I would change!”
Suffice it to say, tournament director Kym Hougham is not one to rest on his laurels and allow a glowing review from one of the Tour’s best golfers keep him from tinkering with what was a spectacular debut. He and his staff have to keep their eyes on much more than the ball to produce this premiere sporting event in Charlotte.
Hougham explains, “We had to experience having the Tour event here first before we could fully assess our needs. By the end of the first tournament, we had 34 pages of notes on operational items and spectator changes that we needed to make. A lot of those things we didn’t know until we got the people out onto Quail Hollow. It’s like the old saying, ‘Don’t build a sidewalk until you find out where people are walking.’”
The Wachovia Championship was such a phenomenal success that few remember the weeks of torrential rain immediately preceding the tournament or the practice rounds on Tuesday that were completely rained out. “For six weeks prior to the tournament, crews built what amounted to a small city on the soggy grounds of Quail Hollow and structural and bleacher contractors worked under very wet conditions,” says Hougham, shaking his head. “And, as if those conditions weren’t difficult enough, once the rain subsided, nobody anticipated temperatures in the nineties for the first week in May. But fortunately the trees and pavilions at Quail Hollow offered ample shade and tournament officials made a point of encouraging spectators to stay hydrated.”
To host any major spectator event, Hougham and his staff often refer to the three T’s; transportation, tickets and toilets. Asked how the Wachovia Championship did in regard to the three T’s, Hougham offers an honest assessment:
“For transportation, we hit a home run. I think if you asked me what the biggest surprise was last year, it was that the shuttle and parking system worked so well.” Anybody who took a shuttle last year would have to agree. Parking at the Coliseum and Ballantyne was ample, security was sufficient, and shuttles departed frequently. During the week of this year’s tournament, shuttles will also be available Wednesday through Friday from the center city, so workers can leave their car parked at the office and hop on a bus to and from Quail Hollow.
“As far as tickets,” Hougham continues, “we sold out last year and we anticipate selling out again this year. However, ticket fulfillment didn’t go as smoothly as we had wanted because of time constraints and printing errors that got in the way. But we got high marks on customer surveys and with another year’s experience, we’ll do better.” One of the very successful changes implemented already for the 2004 tournament was to offer tickets for sale as holiday gifts. Last fall, from November 15th through the 26th, the tournament sold nearly half of the available daily tickets as stocking stuffers!
The third T– toilets (and other spectator on-course amenities) – was probably the biggest inconvenience for the general public during the tournament in 2003. Hougham acknowledges this and explains, “We’re making a lot of changes there. The first year, we hid the toilets as best we could and may have done too good a job. The signage is going to be improved and we’re putting the restrooms on solid decks this year, which enables us to put them where they need to be, instead of looking for a level area. I believe spectators will see a major improvement in these operational areas.”
Other changes that returning spectators will notice are enhanced concession areas and seating options. There was considerable pedestrian congestion behind the clubhouse, so many of the tents will be relocated. The big tent, called The Champions Club, was directly behind the ninth green last year and will be situated near the eighth green this year. The concession stand near the practice putting green experienced the most traffic, so it has been moved and expanded. The Sandbagger Café, situated near the driving range, did not work as well as planned, so a new main concession area will be created on the golf course, between the ninth and tenth fairways, near the Quail Hollow Turn House. Also new this year is an additional section of bleacher seats on the 18th hole. Open to the public, all bleachers at the Wachovia Championship will feature tip-down seats like those found at the Masters and U.S. Open.
For any PGA Tour golf tournament, the unspoken fourth T is, of course, Tiger. Asked what Tiger Woods does for a tournament, Hougham, exhibiting his usual candor, says, “We’re in a unique position where Tiger won’t sell any more tickets, because we’ll be sold out before he commits. Obviously, we want Tiger to come because we want the people of Charlotte to experience Tiger-mania. For us, it means a little more security when he is on the grounds. It also means that tickets will be utilized at a higher percentage. Those tickets that might otherwise sit in a drawer on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, will be used by somebody if Tiger is playing. While it won’t mean more tickets sold, it will mean more people on the golf course, and that is a great problem to have.”
As a PGA Tour tournament director, Hougham is competing with Charlotte’s other sports franchises including the Panthers, the Bobcats and NASCAR, for a share of corporate sponsorship dollars. But he relishes the idea. “We all have a little different demographics, but we all tend to have a finger in each other’s pie. It’s another reason to put a quality product out there, so people will come out to see your event. We’re all bringing world class athletes into town and we’re glad to be a part of that. The thing that impresses me so much about Charlotte is that everybody does it so well. The product is of such high quality. It gave us a blueprint to put on the best PGA Tour tournament.”
Those who like to fuss that sports detract from other much needed community services will be heartened to know that last year’s Wachovia Championship netted a seven-figure donation for a wonderful charity, Teach For America. TFA recruits talented graduating seniors who commit to teaching in urban and rural schools for the first two years of their ‰ careers. Half of the $1 million the Wachovia Championship contributed to TFA was earmarked for teachers in the Charlotte area. “We were very happy that Teach For America chose to do that, because it was not something we requested or required of them,” Hougham reveals. “It’s another way for us to give back to the community. Those 18 or 20 teachers in the Mecklenburg school system will have an impact on thousands of kids.”
Hougham will be the first to tell you that the inaugural Wachovia Championship benefited greatly from Quail Hollow Club being a near perfect course to host a PGA Tour tournament. There are no houses, except on the perimeter. There are plenty of great vantage points for seeing the action and the course layout brings you back toward the clubhouse several times during a round. That’s particularly important to tournament golf because concession stands and other amenities can be centrally located instead of being spread out through 18 holes.
“The golf course is the foremost thing at Quail Hollow,” Hougham says, “and it lends itself to great spectator viewing. It has one of the best practice facilities on the Tour, so it’s easy to get up-close-and-personal with the players. The course is ideal to walk; it’s not too hilly. It’s just an all-around well thought out golf course for the players and spectators. Ultimately, it’s a fair, hard golf course and that’s what the best players like.”
Like any good manager, Hougham is also quick to recognize the unsung heroes who work behind the scenes to make this tournament work so smoothly. He praises his talented staff; “Paula Burnette, our volunteer coordinator, has done just an amazing job. We can’t put on this tournament without the volunteers. We have over 2,500 working this year, taking vacation, time away from their work and families, to come out and support this event. The entire staff worked many long hours to make this event happen. We’ve got more work to do, but there is a sense of comfort because everybody has been through it once now.”
Volunteer chairman, Mac Everett, is another person Hougham credits. “Mac’s knowledge of golf and passion for the sport really made my job easier. He knows the people, he knows the game, he has the organization skills, and he is really hands-on. You’ve also got Johnny Harris and the Quail Hollow membership. Literally, if Quail Hollow had said, ‘We don’t want to host the golf tournament,’ I don’t know if we would have a Wachovia Championship in Charlotte.”
“And I don’t think you can credit Wachovia enough. It’s so much more to them than just writing a check for the Title Sponsorship. The best title sponsors are the ones that have their corporate headquarters in the tournament city. They really take ownership of it. Half of our volunteers work at Wachovia, so it’s a sense of pride for them.”
Having run the John Deere Classic in Moline, Illinois, for seven years, Hougham knows that Tour players can be pretty brutal in their assessment of tournaments, but the Wachovia Championship has been hard pressed to find much in the way of criticism. “The high praise started when they were playing their practice rounds,” says Hougham. “Players felt it was hard, but fair and fun to play. They said the golf course spoke to them, it told them what to do as they stood on the tee box.” In an interview after the tournament, Tour veteran Nick Price boasted, “It’s a straightforward, honest golf course…There’s not a bad hole out there.”
Nevertheless, some significant changes await players this year. On the second hole, a downhill par three, the tee box has been moved back and the front tees have been cut down, so the pros can now see the entire green from where they tee off. Number eight has a brand new green, creating a slight dogleg right, so that what could have been described as a nondescript hole by Quail Hollow standards now has a good deal of character and added bite to the front side. The ninth hole has also been lengthened to bring the fairway bunkers back into play. It’s become a 495-yard par-4 that even the long-hitters will find a bit more challenging.
Including the majors, Quail Hollow was rated as the sixth hardest course on the Tour last year. If PGA Tour players, their wives and caddies were to vote on such a thing, the Wachovia Champi-onship would likely have earned tournament ‘Rookie of the Year’ honors as well. Now that Kym Hougham and his staff have the inaugural tournament behind them, they could very well meet their primary goal of presenting the finest tournament on the PGA Tour. One thing is certain – Hougham’s crew will have their notebooks out again this year, keeping their eyes on much more than the ball.